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Remembering The Gardner Heist, Or The Day Boston Lost Its Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," painted between 1663-1666, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and never recovered. (Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)
Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," painted between 1663-1666, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and never recovered. (Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

In September, WBUR and the Boston Globe are launching a podcast, titled Last Seen, that will dive into the unsolved heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. You could listen to the trailer and subscribe to be notified as soon as there are new episodes here.


On March 18, 1990, I was in Brazil lecturing on American poetry, when I got a phone call from a friend who informed me: “You now live in a city without a Vermeer.”

That morning, of course, was when the theft of 13 pieces of artwork from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was discovered. I grew up in New York, and by then was living in the Boston area. Johannes Vermeer was my favorite painter, and I had written a series of poems in praise of him. The first section ended with "I've never lived in a city without a Vermeer." So the news of the theft, and of that particular treasure, was a powerful blow.

What a consolation it had been, what a treat, to just wander into the Gardner to see Vermeer’s "The Concert" — little more than 2-feet-by-2-feet, perched on a small table in the Gardner’s Dutch Room, back-to-back with Govaert Flinck’s mysterious little “Landscape with Obelisk” (a picture we’d come to know as a Rembrandt before it was re-attributed to one of Rembrandt’s students). The Vermeer was an oasis of calmness and intimate community in a room with a great early Rembrandt self-portrait (still there), a brilliant double portrait of a married couple (oh, that incredible lacework! — far more uncanny in the painting than in any reproduction), and the tremendous, thrilling "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Rembrandt’s only known seascape, in which the artist depicts himself on the boat staring directly at the viewer, hanging onto his hat and grabbing a rope for dear life.

But the Vermeer was the still and mysterious center. And the more you looked at it, the more mysterious and complex it became — the more you needed to look at it to read its subtleties. Here were three figures in a quiet room making music — a woman at the keyboard in profile (she’s wearing a dazzling white satin gown with a bright yellow top and a glistening pearl eardrop), a man seated with his back to us playing a lute, and another woman singing (also with a pearl earring), holding the music in front of her. And there are also other instruments in the shadows: a viola da gamba under a table, and a guitar-like metal-stringed cittern on top of it, so obliquely foreshortened it’s hardly visible. Does this suggest the appearance — or disappearance — of other players?

And then there are the paintings on the wall — a dark forest scene quite the opposite of the refined indoor setting it decorates, and even more startling, a painting called “The Procuress,” in which an ugly hag is taking money from a customer for an only-partially-clothed young prostitute strumming a lute. It’s a painting by Dirck van Baburen, probably owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law and now in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — you can see it hanging there right now. What is Vermeer implying by this juxtaposition of the aesthetic and the profane? Is it a warning? Or just an ironic comparison?

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Every visit to see the Vermeer at the Gardner gave some answers to these questions, answers impossible to get from reproductions. One day, with enough careful observing, I knew I would solve the riddle of this painting.

Now, I never will unless the painting is returned.

I was heartbroken. For months I couldn’t bring myself to go to the Gardner. Then when I did, I would avoid the Dutch Room and its missing masterpieces, and its empty frames. Always mesmerized by the Vermeer, I know I never paid quite enough attention to the other missing paintings — not only the ones in the Dutch room. The elegant Manet portrait and the Degas sketches — the reproductions make me yearn to see the real things, even the little vase and the impressive historic finial (I’m not sure I even knew this word before the theft).

It’s hard to believe it’s now been 28 years since the theft. Most stolen art that has been returned has been returned sooner than that. It doesn’t leave one with much hope, only a continual grief.

Related:

Lloyd Schwartz Twitter Contributing arts critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and senior editor of Classical Music for New York Arts.

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