In March of 1990, two thieves dressed as Boston police officers gained entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and successfully plundered five hundred million dollars worth of art. Among the thirteen priceless works stolen were two of the greatest paintings in the world: Rembrandt's The Sea of Galilee and Vermeer's The Concert, one of only 35 of the master's surviving works.
It was the most expensive art heist in American history. The Gardner museum offered a five million dollar reward. But, as the years passed, not a single work of art was recovered. For the museum, the terrible loss was compounded by the fact that the institution was bound by Isabella Stewart Gardner's will, which stated that no work of art be moved or replaced: hence, the frames which once held masterpieces now hung empty on the walls.
For those who loved the paintings, particularly the rare Vermeer, the loss felt almost personal.
More than ten years after the theft, filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus found herself still haunted by the missing Vermeer. She had first seen The Concert as a young girl and had been overwhelmed by its mysterious beauty within the Gardner's uncanny, intimate space. In 2002, disturbed by the lack of progress in the case, she decided to make a film exploring The Concert and its theft. She was intrigued by the power of the painting and its hold over those who loved it, including herself. As a filmmaker and storyteller, she was particularly compelled by the outrageous range of characters involved in this highly unusual crime story: from the 17th century Dutch masters and 19th century Grande Dame Isabella Stewart Gardner to the present-day conmen and convicted felons who had been linked to the theft in the press.
Dreyfus enlisted her mentor, the renowned documentarian Albert Maysles, as director of photography and began to research the past and present aspects of her film. She immersed herself in Isabella Stewart Gardner's world, uncovering fascinating letters between Gardner and legendary art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who helped Mrs. Gardner to buy some of the world's most beautiful paintings. She found others, including author Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) who revered Vermeer and were devastated by the painting's loss. She studied the international crisis of art crime, a multi-billion dollar enterprise that is devastating the world's cultural heritage.
The film was proceeding slowly and quietly. And then something unexpected, even radical, occurred.
Dreyfus had contacted art investigator Harold Smith to get some background information on international art theft. A courtly man with an ever-present fedora, an eye-patch, and a prosthetic nose to cover the ravages of skin cancer, Smith has one of the shrewdest minds in the art recovery business; he'd solved many of the world's most important heists, including the largest gold robbery in the United States.
The interview seemed simple enough, until Smith mentioned that he shared Dreyfus' passion for the missing Gardner paintings and had been himself obsessed with the case for years. He then confessed to Dreyfus something even more startling: his belief that -- after so many years, and such a large unclaimed reward -- a renewed search for the Gardner art might yield real results. With Dreyfus and her film as his inspiration, Smith now decided the time was right to find out on his own what had happened to these paintings and, perhaps, to bring them home.
Dreyfus' film underwent a dramatic transformation: the film about an art heist became part of an active investigation into the recovery of the missing art.
Smith had a simple and time-tested strategy. His years of experience told him that there were people out there who had heard something about the crime and wanted that reward -- and that, if word got out to them, they'd come to him with what they knew. After all, he was an art investigator, not law enforcement. He didn't want anyone jailed; he wanted the paintings back.
He initiated a publicity blitz, receiving coverage of his quest in The New York Times, Reader's Digest, and Court TV, among many other venues. After just a few weeks, the strategy began to pay off: Smith's twenty-four hour hotline began to ring with potential informants and alleged sightings of the Vermeer.
What followed was a wild journey that crossed two continents, entailing secret meetings with a member of Boston's criminal underworld, a former Scotland Yard detective, and a talkative informant called “The Turbocharger” who happened to know a great deal about a particular international terrorist group -- and its possible link to the missing Gardner art.
The investigation, which is still ongoing, has had many stunning turns and surprising results -- all documented by Dreyfus, who finished her film this past year with the help of film stars Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott, who recorded voiceovers as Isabella Gardner and Bernard Berenson. The film, called STOLEN, is a stirring, visually stunning, and thrilling glimpse into the worlds of art and crime which were brought together on that fateful night in 1990. It is a testament to the power of great works of art to move us to tears and compel us to act and to the tenacity of one man in particular who -- as he nears his eighties, still fighting his nearly lifelong battle with skin-cancer -- refuses to give up until he brings his paintings back where they belong.