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February 20, 2009

The Gardner Heist: An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser

Nearly twenty years after the largest art theft in history, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum whodunit mystery remains unsolved. Even as the hollow frames secured to the museum’s walls endure – wistfully remembering the million-dollar works of art they once decorated – the ISGM continues to thrive and be embraced by an artistic community that treats the Venetian palazzo not as damaged goods, but as a survivor. The museum is a testament to Mrs. “Jack” Gardner’s personal devotion to the arts. It transcends the collection of cultural curiosities it evolved into during her lifetime, and has become a retreat for people who share common affection for its contents.

Adopted by the city of Boston after marrying one of its richest sons, Gardner made “frequent ‘copy’ for two hemispheres” as she traveled the world and lived the life of an eccentric heiress. In his book, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court (sold for $6 in 1925), Morris Carter, the museum’s first director, describes how her villa and its collection filled the void left by her inability to have children (a tragic childbirth in which her only child died in infancy resulted in Gardner’s being unable to have children thereafter). Gardner’s collection, which came to life with each new acquisition, seems to have assuaged these sorrows.

For many, a trip to the museum has become similar to what Gardner’s European travels were for her, “the opportunity for the acquisition of knowledge and cultural expansion.” The thieves, who for over an hour perused the collection, carried out not only priceless works of art, but also a portion of Mrs. Jack Gardner’s vibrant legacy.

Recently, in anticipation of the upcoming release of The Gardner Heist on February 24th, I was fortunate enough to speak with author Ulrich Boser, and hear what he had to say about the largest art theft in history.

MD: How did you come to inherit the files of famed art detective Harold Smith?

UB: Shortly after Smith died, I contacted his family and asked if I could look through his Gardner files. At first, they told me that his files were missing, that it appeared that someone had thrown them out. The family kept hunting, and it turned out that a number of Smith’s most important files had in fact been saved, including police reports and copies of old interviews. Smith had also written up some fictional accounts of his biggest cases, which his daughter Tara gave me. Smith’s family was very gracious, very open. I could not have written the book without their support.

MD: Did the ISGM assist you in your investigation and research?

UB: When I first sent my request for an interview to the museum’s public relations director, she emailed me back and said: “We have to decline access.” If I needed quotes, I could get a written statement from the director of the museum or interview the head of security. But I continued to write emails and letters, and we built up trust and a shared understanding. And since then the museum has been exceptionally supportive. They allowed me to interview director Anne Hawley. They allowed me to use images of the paintings. I’m particularly indebted to director of security Anthony Amore. He’s an ace investigator; he has been very helpful to me.

MD: What was your most memorable moment not contained in the pages of The Gardner Heist that you experienced?

UB: I wished I could have spent more time discussing Smith’s investigation of the Golden Door robbery. It took Smith years to crack the case; it is believed to be the largest gold heist in American history. I also talked a lot with art detective Charley Hill. That was also cut from the manuscript. Hill is a fascinating person and a great art detective. He was written up in Dolnick’s excellent book The Rescue Artist.

MD: How do you account for the eclectic selection of works stolen from the ISGM?

UB: While I think the Gardner thieves were expert criminals, they were not professional art thieves, and I think they didn’t really know the value of what they were taking. The thieves stole a few big-name items—the Rembrandts, the Vermeer—and then they seem to have nabbed whatever else caught their eye. How else can you explain the theft of the finial? The ku? Those items are valuable. But compared to a Vermeer or a Titian, they are little more than knickknacks.

MD: Why did the ISGM thieves not try to steal works of art that might have been easier to sell on the market (e.g. the Zorn’s in the Blue Room on the first floor)?

UB: If the thieves wanted to steal items and slip them back into the legitimate art market, they did make some good choices. The finial, the ku, you could certainly sell those artifacts on e-Bay. You might not get much money, but you could certainly pawn them off. The Vermeer, of course, would be nearly impossible to sell on the open market.

MD: How did your experiences as a journalist help or hinder you in your extensive research for The Gardner Heist?

UB: On one side, it helped. People want publicity, and so they would talk to me in an effort to get their story out to the public. On the other hand, being a journalist did occasionally hinder my efforts. I had to abide by journalistic norms, and I always identified myself as a reporter, I always made sure that off the record comments stayed off the record.

MD: How do you account for why the thieves spent such little time on the first floor of the museum and did not even make it up to the third floor where there are works by Titian, Velazquez, and Botticelli?

UB: Honestly I can’t tell you why the thieves spent such little time on the first and third floor. What is interesting, though, is the fact that the thieves were in the museum for over an hour. By the standards of a robbery, that’s a lifetime. Indeed, many robberies are over in minutes. And I think it shows that the thieves had a working knowledge of the museum’s security system before they entered the building. They must have had some sort of inside connection.

MD: As the global recession worsens will criminals involved in or close to the heist become more inclined to find the paintings and return them for the $5 million reward? Or is this more proof that those involved in the heist and its aftermath do not know the location of the works of art?

UB: I think that if someone had the art—and they were inclined to return it—they would have done it already. So yes what seems more likely is that those involved in the heist no longer know the location of the works of art. But no one knows for sure. After all, the art has not been returned. That’s the great mystery of the case.

MD: Do you believe that such a “successful” heist could occur in a museum of the same caliber as the ISGM today?

UB: The Gardner has done a lot to improve their security. They have many more cameras, many more guards, much better training. But the bottom line is that almost any museum can be robbed. If a thief is committed, they can usually find a way. But keep in mind that museums much larger than the Gardner get hit up too. In November 2006, for instance, someone managed to swipe some fossils from one of the Smithsonian’s galleries.

In the upcoming weeks, Boser will be on-tour stopping at a number of bibliophilic venues for readings, signings, and discussions. One may find his schedule here. Also, his passion for the unsolved Gardner heist has inspired him to organize “The Open Case – a magazine and web community devoted to solving unsolved crimes,” coming March 2009.

Originally posted at Art Theft Central: The Gardner Heist: An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser