Tuesday, June 28, 2011

True Crime Tuesday--Vanishing Treasures

HANK: Anthony Amore is a character right out of a suspense thiller. And yet, he's real. He's a world class expert of art security and art theft. He's a lead investigator on the Isabella Stewart Gardner thefts--that's the missing Rembrandt "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" to the left--and more scoop on that below.

(You have to admit, now that they've caught the notorious Whitey Bulger, the Gardner heist is the biggest unsolved mystery in Boston. And there's a reward of five miliion dolalrs for info that leads to the return of the thirteen stolen works of art!)

Anthony Amore will be at Crime Bake--and the inside stuff he knows is quite amazing. For instance--ask him how the bad guys carry a huge paintings out of a museum. His answer will suprise you.

But today...True Crime Tuesday...he takes us inside the world of art theft.

ANTHONY AMORE: Less than a month ago, two valuable paintings—one a portrait of two smiling boys by Frans Hal and the other a landscape by Jacob van Ruysdael—were stolen from a museum in Leerdam in The Netherlands. Amazingly, this crime, in which the thieves made off with a haul valued in the millions of US dollars, received barely a mention in North America. In fact, I had to use an online translation program in order to read about the theft in English. It’s safe to assume that this is at least partly due to the fact that the public is unaware of the enormity of the problem of crimes against art.

Tell us more! So this goes on all the time? What are some of the most famous cases?

Anthony Amore:
Art theft happens much more than one may think. The trafficking of illicit art is a multi-billion dollar “industry” and includes everything from stolen paintings to Egyptian artifacts to rare items from our nation’s history. It ranges from thefts of antique family heirlooms taken from private homes to thefts from internationally known museums, such as the infamous 1990 theft of 13 priceless items from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That art crime, still unsolved, ranks as the largest property theft in recorded history.

HANK: You investigated that Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. Below is a stolen Degas. Do you think you'll ever discover who did it?

Anthony Amore: Unfortunately, crimes against important cultural property still happen every day. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and INTERPOL, Europe is a hotbed for stolen art and antiquities. This is true in around the world, and the United States is no different. Art theft is so prevalent in America that in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation formed an Art Crime Team to investigate such losses. However, here in the United States, little emphasis is put on the recovery of lost art at the state and local levels of law enforcement.

The good news is that, at least when it comes to stolen masterpieces, the recovery rate is fairly good. That’s because highly recognizable art is very difficult to move. Thieves who see enormous dollar values often commit crimes of opportunity. But as retired FBI agent Robert Wittman has noted, the true art of art theft is in the moving of the goods, not the heist itself. So, while the bad guys usually prevail when it comes to lesser known works, there is hope for better known items. This is just one of the reasons that I am hopeful for a recovery of the stolen Gardner art.

HANK: How do they get away with it? And do the bad guys usually prevail?

Anthony Amore: Over the past year, investigative reporter Tom Mashberg and I teamed up to examine the problem of art theft by researching all of the thefts of paintings by the great master Rembrandt van Rijn throughout the last century. The result of this research is the basis for our book Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists .

Stealing Rembrandts
makes three things abundantly clear: 1) art is not stolen by swashbuckling, debonair thieves on behalf of nefarious billionaires. It is stolen by common crooks, often as a crime of opportunity; 2) stealing high-value art by well-known artists is a fool’s errand because such works are nearly impossible to sell; and 3) prevention against the theft of our priceless cultural treasures, not just the recovery of stolen art, is vitally important. Despite these truths, art remains an attractive target for criminals who are romanced by astronomical values attributed to master works.

: Why did you pick Rembrandt thefts? Is he the most-stolen artist ever?

Anthony Amore: We chose Rembrandt for several reasons. Chief among them was the fact that in my work pursuing the stolen Gardner Rembrandts, I spent considerable time examining how other theft of the great master took place. In seeking out as much information on art crime as I could, I was surprised to see just how often works by Rembrandt have been stolen. Thus, the topic of our book was born. Tom Mashberg, himself no stranger to the pursuit of stolen art, brought his talents for investigative journalism to the project, and we created what we feel is a book that will help the cause of art security for decades to come.

History has proven that, once stolen, thieves have very little success monetizing their booty. Like many of us, they believe the version of life they see on the Hollywood screen, which is based entirely on fantasy, not reality. So, despite the folly of it all, criminals will likely always target art. And that means we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to protect it. An essential part of that is knowing who the culprits are, and who they are not.

One of the more entertaining parts of the book Tom and I wrote deals with the genesis of the myth of “Dr. No.” We examine the origins of the public’s fallacious yet widespread belief that stolen masterpieces now hang on the walls of some master crime figure’s underground lair, there for him to enjoy alone with his brandy snifter. In fact, an investigator is far more likely to find a stolen masterpiece wrapped in a blanket in a storage facility, attic, or basement than he is to find it in a mansion hanging by a fireplace. This is the reality of art theft, and it’s nothing like it is on the big screen.

Hopefully, in some measure, Stealing Rembrandts will smash that myth, helping law enforcement to better identify art thieves and fences, while also showing art collectors (including museums and galleries) who it is they must defend themselves against.

Until art is better protected, and the enemy more clearly understood, our cultural treasures will continue to fall victim to thieves with little regard for history, beauty, or the best achievements of their fellow man.

HANK: SO interesting, huh? Questions for Anthony? Or--what's your favorite painting? A signed copy of Stealing Rembrandts to one lucky commenter!

Anthony Amore is an art security expert and the co-author, with Tom Mashberg, of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, published by Palgrave MacMillan. He can be reached at anthonyamore@hotmail.com


  1. Astonished that these are often crimes of opportunity. How lax is security in these places that someone has the "opportunity" to walk out with a Rembrandt in their coat pocket. I assume they cut the painting out of its frame and roll it up?

  2. This is a very exciting time given the possibility that there may be a break in the Isabella Gardner theft. I eagerly await their book to go on sale. What does Anthony think of the report that Joseph P. Murray in 2002 told Bob Fitzpatrick (#2 in FBI Field Office) that he could put his arm on the guy who had the painting? Author Boser discounts of the informant's suggestion that Patrick Nee, a Bulger associate connected to Murray, was offering the paintings to a dealer in Florida. That discounting seems sound given Patrick Nee apparently was in jail, not in Florida, in the 1990s. Similarly, Anthony co-author convincingly discounts the claims made by William Youngsworth. But is there a basis for discounting what Joe Murray claimed? Might the secret have died with him? It was Joe Murray and his wife Susan who contacted Assistant Attorney Weld at DOJ in the late 1980s and disclosed the murders and payment for wiretap information. Does former Agent Bob Fitzpatrick credit the claim in 2002 by Joe Murray? (Murray in September 2002 was killed in self-defense by his wife Susan at their summer home in Belgrade Lakes who had a restraining order against him.) Does Anthony think that the FBI adequately investigated the lead in 2002?

  3. errata - Joe Murray's wife Susan contacted the DOJ Assistant Attorney General (who had formerly been US Attorney in Boston) in 1992, not 2002 as I typed.

  4. And the winner of the Lisa Scottoline book is: Kay C Burns! (Chosen at random by my dear husband.)

    SO Kay, email me via my website and we'll figure out shipping!

    Hurray! And remember, all comments today are entered in the drawing for Stealing Rembrandts!

  5. Fascinating, Anthony - Looking forward to meeting you and hearing more at Crime Bake!

    I'm struck by the fact that Rembrandts are also frequently forged (I thought I'd read that museums are awash in questionable ones).

  6. Is it wrong that I'm disappointed by the revelation that the art pieces aren't displayed in some uber villian's lair, but are instead stashed in a dingy storage locker?

  7. Fascinating! I suppose you're going to burst my bubble and say thieves rarely return the art they steal to a museum's walls a la "The Thomas Crowne Affair" with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. My faith in Hollywood is severely shaken.

  8. I'm with Kristi - hate to think of Rembrandts and Vermeers moldering (word?) away in some attic. And since they can't exactly be sold like any old stolen Rolex, it's fanciful to think they're on the walls on some deranged billionaire or uber-criminal.

  9. HI Anthony,
    Welcome to JR. This stuff is fascinating. I once heard that stolen art was used as "colatera" to secure bad guy debts, as if a drug distrubotr might put up a painting to secure a shipment, until the cash came in.

    Is this just urban legend?

  10. With respect to the report that the drug dealer Joe Murray had told the former #2 in the office, Agent Bob Fitzpatrick, that he could lay his arm on them, note that years earlier he and Patrick Nee bought chemically treated bags to protect against moisture years earlier in connection with the IRA gun smuggling operation. They paid $7,000 to a gun dealer in Kingston, NY. The IRA would bury the guns in bogs. Brian Ross reported in 2004 that one witness (Youngsworth?) said that Murray at one time had the paintings his home. After Joe's death, his brother Michael, who had been charged with drug smuggling, claimed to have access but then never provided any proof. Joe reportedly had suggested to Agent Fitzpatrick (who in the office seemed part of the solution and not part of the problem) that he could lay his arm on the paintings in connection with trading for freedom. It had been suggested that it related to an IRA prisoner but it was his brother Michael who was facing hard time in connection with marijuana trucked in from Texas. So I think reporters might fruitfully interview both Michael, Joe's wife Susan, and Joe's brother-in-law. Also, Joe and Susan's neighbors who were witnesses that day to Joe's arrival at the summer home in Belgrade Lakes whereupon he was shot by the 125 lb. Susan in self-defense 5 times with a .357 magnum.

  11. Mr. Boser explains that in 1992, Joe Murray told ex-FBI agent Bob Fitzpatrick that he had access to paintings for trade. Then he was shot when he showed up at the summer house on the lake in Belgrade. Fitzpatrick, as I recall Mr. Boser’s book, noted that Susan was 125 lbs. and so it was surprising that she could squeeze 5 shots off into Joe. The suggestion perhaps by some was that perhaps Whitey was upset at Joe Murray for dropping a dime on him to Weld about the murders or dropping the dime about the paintings. Certainly, if experience in the office is any indication, Whitey Bulger would have learned that Joe Murray had made a contact about the paintings. The history had been that information about informants was given by the FBI to Whitey and then the informants were killed.
    Nee's report that Joe had come to Bulger and Nee asking that they kill his wife and brother-in-law because she might disclose that Joe was an informer does not seem plausible -- given that Joe and Susan had sought to tell the DOJ about Bulger and the payments for wiretap information.

    Joe and Susan’s information to the US Assistant Attorney General — about the murder of informants and trading of money for wiretap information — checked out. So why doubt Joe Murray when he says he has access to the paintings? Others are proven con artist. But not Joe Murray. He was a gun-runner and pot smuggler. He may have come to believe in the irish nationalist cause -- schooled by Nee -- but there is no indication he was a liar. Moreover, he had large liquid assets and so could have easily picked up the paintings from the actual robbers.

    I think what former Agent Bob Fitzpatrick says about what Murray told him looms large in importance and would love to see him interviewed on the subject of the paintings. .. to confirm firsthand that Joe Murray in fact made the claim.

    Now toward the end of his book, Mr. Boser says he learned that a Murray theory was discounted because Joe did not get out of prison until the Summer of 1990 (I don't know the month) and so there was insufficient time to get hold of the paintings before being killed in September 1992. Huh? Why? It only took an hour to get hold of the paintings when they were grabbed by the two men wearing police uniforms. Why couldn’t Joe have gotten hold of them in the course of 2 1/2 years? The smash-and-grab guys commonly would do such work for a tidy one-time payment of $100,000 or whatever and be done with it. No one ever suggested that the 6' 4" blond Murray was one of the two men (described as young) who committed the actual robbery.

  12. This subject fascinates me, and the mystery of the Isabella Gardner theft still echoes. Art theft is a huge dollar crime and collectors who buy stolen art still exist. A theft of a Da Vinci drawing is the seminal event in "Edited for Death", my first mystery available Oct. 1, 2011 from Mainly Murder Press. And "Stealing Rembrandts" is going in my "to be read" pile today!

  13. Great, Michele! I loved Edited for Death--will you come visit here when it comes out?

    Did you do a lot of research?

  14. Not a famous painting, but . . . back in the '70's there was a painting in the lobby of a Minneapolis theater, not expensive, a girl on a swing hanging from a tree branch. My friends teased me out of my impulse to buy it, so it has become better and better in my mind as I still regret the decision.
    Another friend has since taught me her mother's "a year from now" guideline for deciding based on how you will feel about the item in a year. It has helped me walk away from unnecessary stuff and walk away WITH things I would regret in a year, or thirty.

  15. Mary! I love that theory..and have never heard it. I am now a total adherent.

    There was a gorgeous piece of art I wanted in Georgia--and I am thinking it was 1979. I passed--and I STILL think about it.

  16. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! If you'd like to read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine on June 19, here's a link:


    Anthony Amore

  17. Just began Hailey Lind's series on art forgery and theft. Time to read about the real stuff.

  18. Anthony, your book sounds wonderful. I read a good bit about art and antiquities fraud in major auction houses when I was researching one of my books (Where Memories Lie.) Fascinating stuff.

    But, I, too, hate to think of great paintings stashed away in some attic or lock-up, to be ruined or perhaps lost forever . . .

  19. I was traveling in Paris in 1998 and happened to be at the Louvre the day a Corot painting was stolen from the museum. I was already fascinated by art theft in the world of mystery novels, but that experience solidified my interest in art crime. This book sounds great!

  20. Hank asked for more details about my experience at the Louvre.

    Short version: Thieves razor-bladed the painting out of its frame, and the museum authorities locked down the museum as soon as it was discovered. There were thousands of people inside, though, so they searched as well as they could but never found the painting!

    You can read the long version here: http://www.pensfatales.com/2010/12/theft-at-louvre.html

  21. Anthony, I can't wait to meet you at Crime Bake! Since I've worked at not one but two institutions that suffered significant (i.e., multi-million dollar) thefts while I was there, I have a passing familiarity with art theft. But I was not in the Boston area when the Gardner heist happened, I swear! Although I did go to school with one of the former curators...never mind.

    Even if he didn't engineer the theft, can we really believe Bulger didn't know what was going on?

  22. And, Sheila, if he DOES know, and tells, couldn't he get the $5 million dollar reward? And then he could pay his lawyers, right?


  23. Anthony, me too, can't wait to meet you at Crimebake! Boy you'd have to have some nerve to walk right up to a famous painting and cut it out of the frame. can't even imagine it...

  24. Why is it we think more often of the opportunities we missed when we passed on a piece of artwork than the items we bought that hang on our walls?

    I am a bit dissapointed that real art thieves are sophistocated rascally entrepenours. Sigh! This is probably one of the reasons we write fiction.

    gkw9000 at gmail.com

  25. Thanks, Anthony -- such intriguing stuff! And the Isabella Stuart Gardner thefts are still fascinating -- I just read two novels in a row with references to them (Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty and Sheila Connolly's Fundraising the Dead).

  26. Hank is correct...Information that leads directly to the recovery of all 13 pieces stolen in 1990 brings a reward of $5 million. That's the largest private reward ever offered for anything!

  27. I'm so excited to read Anthony's book; thank you for posting this interview and bringing it to my attention. I write art mysteries for young adults, and agree with other posters here that it's more intriguing (and frankly, easier) to have a sophisticated art thief who rubs his hands with glee at the prospect of owning a masterpiece. I have struggled to paint a more complex and realistic picture. One aspect of art theft that I find intriguing is that it relies so much on networks of people, some of whom are not in some shadowy underworld but who in fact operate in legitimate art markets. This idea is a sobering one for the art world, but a fascinating one for us fiction writers!

  28. And the winner is--chosen as a random number chosen by my dear husband: KRISTI!

    Email me via my website and we will get you the book!

    Hurray--and congratulations..and we're giving away another book today!

  29. Hank, I seem remember reading a mystery novel about a theft at the Gardener BEFORE the real one occurred. I can't remember anything about it, including the author, title, or plot. Do you know it?

  30. Wow, cool... Makes me wanna come to Crimebake! I've got Priceless waiting in the TBR stack, about the FBI's art theft division. Fascinating stuff!

    As for favorite paintings... being Norwegian, I'm partial to Munch. Like 'The Scream,' - you know, the one that was stolen from the National Museum in Oslo the day the Olympics in Lillehammer opened in 1994? Someone put a ladder up to the window, climbed up, took the painting, and climbed back down. The police found it again, but it took years. :(

  31. DO come, dear Jennie! That would be so great!

  32. Patricia, a novel about a theft at the Gardner published after the actual heist is David Hosp's AMONG THIEVES.

    With respect to the Eagle finneal, I just noticed that Shea, who had been mentored by Bulger and was bitter that he was an informant, says in RAT BASTARDS that the Eagle is the mascot for Boston College and that Billy Bulger was known as Triple Eagle... Boston High School, Boston College and Boston College law school... IF I am remembering correctly and Boston College has a law school.