You can imagine the confluence of emotions that Boston Herald journalist Tom Mashberg must have felt when, after a late night trip to a darkened warehouse he was given a glimpse by flashlight of what could very well have been Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee: elation, surprise, fear. It was the closest that anyone (legitimate) has come to one of the missing pieces of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.
That’s assuming that it was the genuine article. One thing you pick up on very quickly in Rebecca Dreyfus’ documentary Stolen is that there are as many uncertainties, as many people willing to obfuscate or exploit the crime for their own reasons that truth seems hopelessly obscured. This is great grist for the mill for a documentary filmmaker however, and Dreyfus gives just enough of a taste of many of the eccentric players and rival conspiracy theories to make an impression of just how tough it’s been for investigative journalists like Mashberg, local law enforcement and the F.B.I. to know just what trail to follow.
While Mashberg’s story has been the most dramatic in a long string of hopeful leads and blind alleys, she doesn’t linger on it for long. Enlisting the help of an investigator of stolen art, the film quickly changes course into a full-on attempt to recover the missing paintings. This proves a wise (if incredibly optimistic) approach: a good documentary really succeeds on the basis of the participants, and she found a winner in Harold Smith (he passed away in 2005, a year before the film’s release). Both dapper and roguish with his eyepatch and bowler hat, he seems like a character straight out of the best mystery novel. He is joined by characters with monnikers like “the Turbochaser,” who makes it a point to explain that his rapid delivery is not the result of drugs. When Smith asks a former art thief about whether two of the people the latter claims were involved in the case died of natural causes, the ex-felon pauses for a long moment. “Not exactly,” he states blankly. It’s that pause, captured on camera, that makes documentaries so fascinating. Smith’s unflappability in the face of every fresh wild assertion or offer of recovery is the perfect stand-in for the viewer trying to make sense of the interweaving muddle of potential culprits: everyone from the Boston mob to the I.R.A.
There are some cursory forays into art appreciation as Dreyfus trots out a succession of people who extol Vermeer’s The Concert, lips aquiver. The Concert fairly dominates the imaginations of all involved seemingly, very little is said about the artistic value of the other missing paintings (for the record, Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black, a self portrait and the aforementioned Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Flink’s Landscape with Obelisk; Manet’s Chez Tortoni; and Degas’ La Sortie du Pelage, Cortege aux Environs de Florence, Three Mounted Jockeys, and two charcoal works both referred to as Program for an Artistic Soiree). We learn quite a bit about Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, from letters to her agent in Europe busy snatching up the works that would end up in the collection, biographer Douglass Shand-Tucci and Frank Dimaria, a gallery attendant at the museum (a character himself). “Mrs. Gardner was a very plain looking woman,” we are told, “who had a magnificent figure and cultivated her figure as some sort of redress for being rather plain looking.” It is even suggested that Sargent “rather fudges her face” in his portrait of her. Ahem.
While I spent the past year doing my best to ignore the buzz in the art world over auctioned items going for outrageous prices, we get some sense from Gardner’s letters of the mania for acquisition. I couldn’t help thinking as we hear her alternately gushing over a new possession and entreating her agent Bernard Berenson not to let it be known that she was a collector as he brokered a new deal, that her scramble for paintings was occurring roughly within the same period described in the novel The Jungle. Congratulating herself that she could now see these works any time she liked, she wrote: “There’s richness for you.” No doubt.
What’s missing, strangely enough, is a detailed recreation of the events of the robbery itself. A good one can be found, incidentally, on The Boston Globe’s website. There is also no mention that as a result of the robbery, the museum received a boost in attendance, nor that the museum was uninsured for theft, and that the paint chips provided to Tom Mashberg as proof of possession of the paintings were fakes, part of an scam to get two art felons released from jail. It’s interesting that even now, after the statue of limitations has run out, and with a $5 million dollar reward still standing, the recovery of the stolen art seems no closer to reality than when the documentary was released. In fact, a rather telling omission in nearly every account I’ve read is that also taken during the theft was a Chinese Bronze Beaker. And this is where Dreyfus’ film proves itself such a valuable exploration I think, despite the fact that it did not achieve its laudable attempt to crack the case. After the wild auctions and excesses of last year, Gardner’s obsession seems strangely contemporary, as does its reminder that to some money is no object. Because although the author Katharine Weber states that until it is returned, the crime is that Vermeer’s The Concert is “missing from the world,” to others, the purloined items are viewed very differently. To some they are a bargaining chip. To others they are an invitation to a scam. To a Boston U.S. Attorney, they are not worth more than a criminal prosecution. To the thieves they are items worth unbelievable amounts of money. As William Youngworth, just one of the people Harold Smith interviews in the belief that he may have had some role in the crime reminds us, “We’re only talking about some pictures here.”