In Garage Magazine No. 6, Charles Hill spilled the secrets to investigating high-profile thefts of Vermeers, “The Scream,” and more.
Like the viking sagas, art-crime sagas can be bloody, redemptive, and exhausting. Heroes and monsters abound. The legendary bloodhound Charles Hill recounts three spectacular art heists and reveals to GARAGE the psychology of the cops, the robbers, and the criminal masterminds who populate the art world.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, was robbed on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, by two men dressed as Boston police officers. They stole a number of paintings, including Vermeer’s The Concert, three Rembrandts (one his only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Gahilee), and Manet’s Chez Tortoni, along with the finial to a banner from Napoleon’s Imperial Guard and an ancient Chinese beaker. The most important painting in the Gardner Museum is probably Titian’s Rape of Europa, but is was too big to shift. The finial was possibly stolen as some childish game of Capture the Flag, and the beaker was simply attractive and available. Nothing has been seen of them since.
Isabella Stewart Gardner put together her collection in the late 19th century, largely on the advice of Bernard Berenson and Lord Duveen. Not every piece in the museum is exactly what Berenson and Duveen claimed it was when they sold it to her, but the masterpieces at least are genuine.
In my opinion, the main villain was a top-echelon informant for the FBI named James Joseph Bulger, nicknamed Whitey. There is no hard evidence for this but I combat art crime both rationally and irrationally, intellectually and viscerally. That technique serves me well as a style and measure of success.
Through Whitey, the FBI had eviscerated two New England Mafia families, the Patriarca and ANgiulo clans. He went on the run in the late 1990s lot was captured in California in 2011 and imprisoned for 11 murders and other crimes. It is inconceivable to me that Whitey did not know why the Gardner Museum paintings were stolen and where they went. Even the dogs in the streets of South Boston on the new morning of March 18, 1990, must have known that Whitey was involved in some way before, during, or after the robbery took place. However, he is saying nothing. What can he say?
There are three strands of inquiry about what happened to those paintings, the finial, and the Chinese beaker. In March 2013, the FBI announced that they knew who the culprits were and are concentrating their efforts in South Philadelphia, presumably among Italian Americans. I think that is speculative bullshit, because they want it to be true. The second strand is based on information from a variety of sources acquired by Richard Ellis, formerly head of the Art & Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard. I would not vouch for the probity of any of his sources, but they all seem to sing from the same hymn sheet and place those stolen Gardner Museum paintings in Ireland.
My strand of enquiry leads to Ireland as well, although I admit it may be as speculative as the FBI’s ideas. The robbery at the Gardner Museum was inspired, if that is the right word, by Martian Cahill’s art thefts in Ireland, including the great heist at Sir Alfred and Lady Beit’s home, Russborough. It’s like unraveling the storyline of Sophocles’ Antigone, perhaps best read in Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of that play in The Burial at Thebes: I believe the two Gardner thieves have died, and the before the second the second one went to meet our Maker, he asked me to help find the body of his brother for a proper burial.
The most important consideration regarding the Gardner Museum’s stolen paintings is to recover them intact, and secondly, to recover them without excessive hassle. Prosecuting the thieves would be a pointless exercise. The people who hold the artworks now are not the ones who stole them. In my opinion, the reason they are hidden away is because no one wants to get caught in possession, and those who now hold them are unsure what to do with them. As I see it, my task is to provide them with a few good ideas about how best to deliver those pictures, the finial, and the beaker back to Boston. The advertised reward is a consideration: at last count, on the FBI’s stolen-art website, it was $5 million.
Edvard Munch’s original version of The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery of Norway. Oslo on the first morning of the 1994 Winter Olympics, which were held in Lillehammer, north of Oslo. Two men put up a ladder against the window of the room in which The Scream hung—that’s what Norwegian organized crime was like in those days, The first attempt to climb the ladder failed. I supposed because it was cold outside, but the second succeeded and the two took off with the painting, all watched on CCTV by the security guard inside, who took his time to phone first his supervisor and then the police.
Four months later, posing as an agent of the Getty Museum in California, I located the painting in the basement of a summerhouse along Oslo Fjord. I had driven down there with a dodgy art dealer known to the thieves. We all stopped for a coffee along the highway first and made a plan. I would continue south and collect the picture, while my minder (who they reckoned was an English thug based in Amsterdam) went back to Oslo to sort out the money for its recovery.
In fact, though he looked like a gorilla, he was the most highly decorated officer in London’s Metropolitan Police, the denouement of the drama came when I was invited to go down to the basement to claim the painting. I was not prepared to be held in that basement until the following Christmas, so I told my host, the dodgy art dealer, what I thought of that idea in language that could best be described as Old English vernacular. So he went and brought it upstairs himself. I unwrapped it from a blue sheet and saw first where Munch had started painting on what’s now the back. The picture is painted on heavy cardboard, which surprised me, but I turned it over and there was the famous image, including the original splatter marks where Munch blew out a candle on it. I said something original like “Holy mackerel” while I admired it. We then drove with it in his Mercedes boy racer coupé to the Asgardstrand Hotel (that hotel is depicted in another painting by Munch of young girls on a pier) and when he left (ostensibly for me to get some sleep) I called my Norwegian police colleagues to come and collect it.
Meanwhile, my gorilla-lookalike undercover police colleagues had a fight in Oslo’s Grand Hotel with a psychopath and a sociopath, aided by two Oslo Police Officers Who sauntered into the room with their snack packs of Big Macs and cokes, and the money—big bucks in krona. The two fighting fruit-and-nut cases were arrested.
The dodgy art dealer was later arrested and released without charge. At their trial the thieves’ lawyers claimed that I was in Norway Illegally under a false name and with false papers (provided by the government of Norway and the UK) which is prohibited by post-Second World War Norwegian law to prevent secret police actions, so they work free, too. Still, the painting was recovered and that was the important thing.
Munch was an artistic genius and a reprehensible creep. When he died he was given a state funeral by Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi collaborationist government. He produced four, possibly five, versions of The Scream, and lithographs of the image. The blow-up dolls and key-chain fob came later.
In 2004, a police officer was murdered during an armed robbery at cash depot in the Norwegian city of stavanger, and to divert the police’s attention from the investigation into that, an armed robbery was committed later in the year at the Munch Museum in Oslo, during which versions of The Scream and Madonna were stolen. The armed gang responsible were mostly Albanian ethnicity, living in Oslo and the Swedish city of Gothenburg, and were completely unconnected to the 1994 thieves, who were local no hopers. One of the organizers of the 2004 theft, David Toska, claimed an advertised reward of one million dark chocolate M&Ms when that version of The Scream was recovered in 2006. All types of people commit art crimes, including chocoholics....MUCH MOREIf interested we have quite a few links on art theft and recovery including the above-referenced prior piece from Garage.
The Case of the Mafia and the Stolen Caravaggio
Loot From World's Biggest Art Heist Probably In Ireland-Investigator (plus the 'catalogue' of the Hermann Göring collection)
Valuation: "Dark-Web Shoppers Are Bidding $350,000 in Bitcoin for a Stolen Painting—and It’s Likely a Fake"
Art Basel/Art Miami: Diddy Dislocates Drake's Shoulder, Picasso Stolen
Italy's Anti-Mafia Police Find Stolen Van Goghs
Assets that Ain't Going to Germany: "Picasso, Mondrian works stolen in Athens art heist"
Picasso, Matisse, Monet paintings stolen from Dutch museum in daring heist
How Do You Sell a Stolen Painting?
In the wake of last night's epic theft from a Dutch museum, the founder of the FBI's art crimes team explains why stealing masterpieces is a terrible business plan. Serbian special police guard a recovered Cezannne taken in an armed robbery. (Reuters)