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Essential Reading To Help You Understand The Gardner Museum Heist

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Every reader interested in better grasping what was lost the night of March 18, 1990 ought to get to know Isabella Stewart Gardner, too. It was only once I had a better understanding who she was and what her museum and collection meant to her that I could truly begin to feel the loss of those 13 stolen pieces. What follows are just a few of the books I turned to again and again over the course of the last 18 months. Read on for a list of the indispensable, riveting and deeply researched volumes about the heist itself by my colleague, Jack Rodolico.

-- Kelly Horan


Kelly's reading list:

'Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court'

By Morris Carter

Published in 1925 and written by the man Isabella Stewart Gardner herself hand-picked to be the first director of her museum, Carter’s is an old time hagiography and a delicious — if not entirely accurate — read. Carter reportedly solicited the feedback of many in Gardner’s circle who knew her well — or wished to appear that way in print — and the reader wonders where the objective opinions end and the jockeying for posterity begin. No matter. Carter himself, in the book’s preface, writes, “The title of this book might well have been ‘The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner, as told by the Town of Boston.’ I found it a wonderful place to start in my odyssey to try to get to know the indomitable Mrs. Jack.

'Mrs. Jack'

By Louise Hall Tharp

So many of the primary sources that would serve subsequent biographers hadn’t yet been discovered when Tharp published her account of Gardner’s life in 1965, but the narrative she weaves is spellbinding — and gossipy in all the right ways. In the absence of Gardner’s correspondence and travel journals, Harp quoted liberally from newspaper accounts and from those who remembered what it was like to be in Gardner’s sparkling orbit. As such, we learn that Gardner had been dubbed “one of the Seven Wonders of Boston,” and we delight in Harp’s own account of wandering the museum as a child and witnessing a very elderly Gardner call out to a small crowd passing through one of her galleries, “Don’t touch!”

'The Art of Scandal'

By Douglass Shand-Tucci

If his predecessors gave us Isabella Stewart Gardner through the eyes of her contemporaries and the day’s observers, Shand-Tucci’s biography, published in 1997, casts Gardner through a very particular gaze: his own. Shand-Tucci, whose other non-fiction books examined Boston’s thriving gay culture, revisits that theme here. The result is a deeply personal account, and one that offers a glimpse into a late-19th century Boston that is more Bohemian than buttoned up. Shand-Tucci was also the first to have access to a trove of letters from such avid Gardner correspondents as Henry James, who immortalized Gardner as Isabel Archer in his novel, "Portrait of a Lady." And my favorite bits of this entertaining read quote liberally from such correspondence.

'The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner'

By Patricia Vigderman

My favorite of the books about Gardner, this one is a slim volume, published in 2007, that is nevertheless rich with the author’s insights and reflections. Hers is a quest to get to know Gardner through the palace she built and the treasures she installed there. Vidgerman is a seeker, and one who writes like a dream. The result is a book that cast this reader in a kind of hypnotic state. I dip into it before every visit to the Gardner Museum and let wherever I fall in the book guide me to this painting or that tapestry that Vidgerman has mined for meaning. No other book about Gardner so transported me or made me yearn to know her. None has made me feel more deeply the loss of what was stolen on March 18, 1990.

The Letters of Bernard Berenson & Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1924

Want to know if Isabella Stewart Gardner loved all of her art the same? This compendium of letters, edited and annotated by former Gardner Museum director Rollin Van N. Hadley and published in 1987, gives you an idea. To be read straight through, like a novel, or with the help of the index to pinpoint certain works. This is where I learned that, in a charming postscript in a letter to Berenson dated Aug. 30, 1898 and written from Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, Gardner wrote: “Your description of the sea picture makes me fairly ache for it!” She was referring to Rembrandt’s "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," which was one of the 13 pieces stolen on March 18, 1990.

'Letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner'

By Henry James

This little gem of a book, published in 2009 by London’s Pushkin Press, features only the American literary master’s letters to Gardner. We don’t have the benefit of the lady’s replies, but that doesn’t lessen the pleasure of eavesdropping on an albeit one-sided conversation. Here, we have the Henry James who adored Venice and Gardner in equal measure, even as he battled his envy over her considerably less burdened existence. But cry him a river: James passed summer idylls visiting the Gardners at the Palazzo Barbaro along the Grand Canal. The palace would inspire Gardner’s own back home in Boston and inspire the one that appears in the pages of James’s novel, "Wings of the Dove." I love this book for the capsule introduction to Gardner and the pulsating, creative life that surrounded her wherever in the world she went.

'Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists'

By Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg

A longtime investigative reporter and the head of security for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum team up in this entertaining compendium of the motives and methods of art thieves the world over. Deeply researched, compellingly written, this is the book I read before turning to any other about the Gardner Museum heist, because what I needed above all was context. Where does the Gardner heist fit in the annals of art crime? Why do thieves steal art? Why is Rembrandt so often their target? Why does it matter when a masterwork of our civilization goes missing? I brought these and other questions to my first read of this indispensable book, and I had each one answered in turn.


Jack's reading list:

'Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist'

By Stephen Kurkjian

Plenty of reporters have covered the Gardner heist over the years, and many have done it well. But Steve Kurkjian is the only one who hasn't come up for air since the mid-1990s. His book takes you deep inside the gangster world that investigators have plumbed for clues about the heist and the whereabouts of the stolen art. Kurkjian overturns every rock he can find, and lays out theories with a skeptical eye.

'The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft'

By Ulrich Boser

Boser takes a shoe-leather approach to the greatest art heist in history. When a respected art detective passed away some years ago, Boser inherited that man's case files. From that point forward, his book reads like a reporter's notebook. He builds his scenes around his own interactions with the suspects and investigators who have lived and breathed this case.

'Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures'

By Bob Wittman with John Shiffman

Bob Wittman was the founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, and his book earned him the nickname "the FBI's real Indiana Jones." The book reads less like a scene more like a very well-written series of FBI case files — deep dives into the world of an undercover art detective as he nabs bad guys and returns treasure to its rightful owners. There are also a lot of juicy details about one of Wittman's final cases — a tip about the Gardner art that put him on a collision course with agents in Boston's FBI office.

'The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Thief'

By Myles Connor with Jenny Siler

You can't find a better memoir written from the other side of the art crime world than Myles Connor's. It reads like the craziest Scorsese film you've ever seen, but the story is true. Connor, who was once a prime person of interest in the Gardner heist, should probably be serving a combined life sentence for all the crimes he committed, but he's not. In this book he explains how he got away with most of it — and how the law eventually caught up with him.

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