BOSTON – More than two decades after thieves stole Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” from a Boston museum, the FBI continues to receive new leads about the largest art theft in US history. Soon, detectives hope, the Dutch master’s iconic seascape, and 12 other treasures stolen on a cold March night 23 years ago, will be “back home where they belong.”
On that bitter night of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers were let into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by a security guard. After apparently overpowering two guards and duct-taping them to chairs in the basement, the thieves helped themselves to some of the world’s greatest art treasures.
During an 81-minute nocturnal spree, the 110-year-old museum was relieved of works by Degas, Vermeer and Manet, as well as three Rembrandts. The thirteen stolen pieces were estimated to be worth half a billion dollars – the largest private property theft ever.
Twenty-three years later, empty frames still hang in the museum’s Dutch Room gallery, including one for Rembrandt’s five-foot-tall depiction of Jesus calming a stormy Sea of Galilee. One of many Rembrandts based on scenes from the Bible, it was the artist’s only seascape, painted in 1633 — 380 years ago.
In March, the FBI’s Boston office announced it had determined the identity of the thieves, and that the stolen masterpieces were originally brought to Connecticut and the Philadelphia area. No other details have been released, but FBI officials have said the hunt is in its “final chapter.”
“The works stolen from the Gardner are part of what define us as a people, and they’re a big loss for who we are,” Geoff Kelly, a special agent in the FBI’s Boston field office and art crime team member, told the Times of Israel. “With the announcement in March, we are trying to spread a wider net based on our leads in Connecticut and Philadelphia.”
The FBI’s wider net includes an unprecedented $5 million reward for information leading to discovery of the stolen works, as well as immunity from the US Attorney’s Office, Kelly said.
“The case itself is so fascinating, because it’s right out of a Hollywood movie,” Kelly said. “It really resonates with the public.”
Added Kelly, “It would have been great if someone [came in] and said, ‘I’ve seen one of those paintings, it’s in my basement right now.’” Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.
Rembrandt based his 1633 “Storm” on a passage from the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus calms a “furious squall” on the Sea of Galilee with the words, “Quiet! Be Still!”
Like other Rembrandt scenes from the Holy Land, the master worked a small self-portrait onto the canvas, right in the tempest-tossed boat with the apostles and Jesus.
According to scholars, the Bible was a kind of personal diary for Rembrandt, filled with connections to his everyday life. At least 60 of his paintings on Biblical themes run the gamut from Old Testament figures like Moses, Samson and Esther, all the way to New Testament scenes depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Despite inserting his own likeness into some panoramas, Rembrandt was obsessed with accuracy and detail in his paintings, and even imported camels to Amsterdam for use in studies. The artist made extensive use of local Amsterdam Jews as subjects for his Holy Land paintings and depictions of Jewish weddings.
For art thieves from London to New England, Rembrandt is the undisputed master of choice for a good heist.
“Basically everyone knows who Rembrandt is,” said Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum’s security director since 2005 and lead investigator into the theft.
“There are Rembrandts in every major city in the world, so there is that availability,” Amore told The Times of Israel. “This availability combined with fame is the perfect storm for theft.”
A global expert in art crime, Amore recently wrote a book chronicling Rembrandt heists around the world. In “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists,” Amore explores fans and thieves’ shared obsession with works by the Dutch Golden Age’s most prolific master painter.
According to Amore, more than 70 thefts of Rembrandt’s works have occurred during the past century. One Rembrandt portrait – of Dutch engraver Jacob de Gheyn III – has been stolen no fewer than four times since 1966, earning it the moniker “takeaway Rembrandt” and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
One Rembrandt portrait has been stolen no fewer than four times since 1966
Almost all art thefts have an inside element, according to Amore, making it imperative for security heads to be intimately familiar with background checks conducted on museum personnel. Amore is also quick to shatter the belief that art thefts are committed by sophisticated, high-tech thieves.
“Art is not stolen by master criminals, but by common criminals,” Amore said. “People are regularly calling us with Hollywood-type theories about who committed the heist. But this is less like “The Thomas Crown Affair” and more like a Coen brothers movie.”
A common Gardner heist myth is that the museum was targeted because of poor security. According to Amore, the reality is somewhat different.
“The fact is that almost all the other museums in Massachusetts had been hit in the years leading up to 1990,” Amore said. “At least two major museums in the state had Rembrandts stolen during this period. The Gardner’s time had come.”
Of thirteen works stolen on that March night, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” holds a special fascination for art aficionados. The painting was the focal point of the museum’s fabled Dutch Room, and displayed directly across from a postage stamp-sized self-portrait of Rembrandt – also stolen.
Though Vermeer’s “The Concert” was the most highly valued work stolen, fellow Dutchman Rembrandt’s “Storm” has more firmly captured the public’s imagination.
“Most of the pieces in the Dutch Room were portraits,” noted Amore. “But this painting was a big dramatic scene that caught your eye first, as a giant sweeping dramatic seascape. I could talk for an hour about that painting.”
Since taking over the museum’s security in 2005, Amore has talked about the stolen works for a lot more than an hour. In countless interviews and public speaking engagements, Amore has sought to expand the museum’s quest to retrieve its stolen masterpieces into the quest of art-lovers everywhere.
“We’ve made increased use of social media in recent years, and also benefit from a symbiotic relationship between the museum, the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office,” Amore said. “We just want to bring these treasures back home where they belong.”
In the meantime, the appeal of Rembrandt and his diverse body of work shows no sign of abating. Since the artist’s death almost three and a half centuries ago, a mind-boggling array of personalities – sometimes unexpected – have expressed an affinity for the Dutch master.
One such notable was Rabbi Abraham Kook, a founder of religious Zionism and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. During his years in London, Rabbi Kook frequently visited the National Gallery and meditated on Rembrandt’s works there.
“I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik,” Rabbi Kook once told the writer Avram Melnikoff, using the exalted Hebrew term for a righteous person.
“We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other,” Rabbi Kook said. “God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it, [but] now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”