Monday, May 30, 2016

The Gardner Art Museum Heist of 1990 Lives on in Novels (no. 52)

 by Larry Witham


THE 1990 HEIST of artworks from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston remains a black hole in the history of crime. None of the thirteen items—from a Rembrandt to a Vermeer—has been recovered, and theories abound on who did the deed.
            Crime novelist David Hosp is not the only writer who has wrapped the Gardner heist itno fiction. But his novel, Among Thieves (2010) presents as gritty a tale as the noir approach to art crime could possible do. And he offers a fictional theory that ties up all the loose ends of the actual heist—and offers hope that the paintings soon will be returned.
            Hosp write a crime series featuring Boston criminal defense lawyer Scott Finn, an Irish “southie” (south Boston). Finn left behind a foster-home misfortune and his juvenile delinquency to become a powerhouse lawyer. He’s forty-four when we catch up with him in Among Thieves, and he is defending a small-time Irish thief named Devon Malley, who used to work for famous the Irish-American gang boss “Whitey” Bulger.
            Now begins the fiction. It was Devon, we find out, who pulled off the Gardner heist with an imported Irish gangster, “the Irishman.” Bulger had ordered the heist at the behest of the IRA, which had been using stolen art for financing. However, by the time the Gardner heist was done, the publicity made the art works impossible to sell. A few years after the hiest, Bulger summoned Devon. They picked up the hidden paintings and put them in a storage unit. Soon after, Bulger was on the run, having been indicted in Boston for gang murders.
            We begin the story of Among Thieves twenty years later. A group of IRA radicals has split from the main organization, which has signed a truce in Ireland. The radical wing wants the paintings to finance their continued struggle. They have sent a killer to Boston torture Devon and two others to find out where the paintings are.
            Finn, the lawyer, is working with Devon on a minor theft charge when the other two are tortured and killed. Devon knows he is next, so he works with Finn for a way out. Unbeknownst to Finn, Devon had already floated the idea of selling the paintings. The FBI is working covertly to manage the exchange. After the first murder, two Boston police detectives begin to follow Finn and the FBI, suspicious of the lawyer and the feds, who are always there, but won’t tell them anything.
            In the end, the Irish killer takes Devon’s daughter hostage. The killer thinks he’s gotten the crate with the paintings, but amid a car crash—the Boston cops with the fleeing killer—it is revealed that the crate is empty. Devon is also surprised. The solution is the “third person,” that is, a third individual who had a key to the storage unit and must have taken them.
            Says lawyer Finn, “The question is, who was the third?”
            Finn figures this out in the end—the third person is an elderly caretaker at the museum, now retired. He grew up in Bulger’s neighborhood. Back in the day, Bulger came to him and said if he didn’t help with a heist, they’d burn down the Gardner Museum. Thus, the caretaker helped pull an inside job to save the art institution he loved.
            How then does author Hosp reconcile his novel’s plot with the still-missing paintings in the real world? Easy. The caretaker says that their location will be revealed when he dies, which won’t be long, given his brittle age.
            In all, Hosp sticks to the facts as the FBI knows them. The real thieves took some oddities, such as a decorative finial at the top of a flag pole and some Degas sketches. In the novel, this is explained as Devon just doing some treasure hunting as “the Irishman” went after the valuable paintings, cutting each from its frame. The caretaker, moreover, had supplied all the security, layout, and art information. For fiction, it’s about as close as we can get to what really happened.
            Before the Gardner heist, the popular mystery writer Jane Langton gave us Murder at the Gardner (1988), part of the Bostonian who-done-it Homer Kelly detective series, its major strength being a full description of the Gardner interior and collection. After the heist, at least two other art novels besides Hosp’s Among Thieves touch on the event, if tangentially:
            ■ Hollywood actor and comedian Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (2010) follows the career of a hip young woman, Lacey Yaeger, in New York City. She’s an art dealer riding the art market rollercoaster. Her story stretches from the go-go eighties to the market crash of 2008.
            Along the way, the reader thinks that the plot will turn on Lacey discovering that her boss is laundering two of the stolen Gardner paintings, a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The suspicion rises, but recedes quickly. Lacey learns that he is working with the FBI. The Vermeer she found is only a copy, a decoy for an FBI sting. After that, the novel loses any suggestion of a crime plot. Lacey’s misjudgments—her sleeping around and her small step into market fraud—catch up with her. She ends broke. Her gallery closes. She returns home to her mother in Atlanta, Georgia.
            ■ B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger (2012) presents young heroine Claire Roth, a professional painter-copier of old masters (for buyers who legally want a copy). Claire has a humble studio in Boston. She is brought a “copy” of a Degas stolen in the Gardner heist; the novel invents a painting called After the Bath. Claire accepts the job, thinking she is doing a copy of a copy.
            The novel also interjects the story of the Gilded Age founder of the museum, Isabella Stewart Gardner, known intimately as “Belle.” Novelist Shapiro does this by inventing romantic letters between Belle and Degas. The sexual plot thickens, since After the Bath is a naked painting of Belle, who in her day was a powerful and wealthy Bostonian socialite.
            In the present, Belle’s niece Sandra has all her aunt’s papers. Claire meets Sandra researching the Gardner case and the Degas. Sandra is in her eighties, the last Gardner heir. And Sandra has an untold secret: years before the Gardner heist, she had stolen After the Bath from the museum and had a professional forger make a copy to replace it. So, whoever did the Gardner heist, had stolen a mere copy.
            By the end of the story, the FBI and Claire figure this out. But it is only the brilliant Claire who solves the mystery: she goes to Sandra’s brownstone, confronts her, breaches a secret room, and finds the true Degas painting, After the Bath. The room is like a shrine, for it only contains the painting and a chair facing it.
            The Art Forger has been called “chic lit,” and its arc does focus on the lusty womanhood of Belle and the triumphs of the female artist Claire against two heterosexual male nemeses (though, as might be expected, Claire does have a hip gay ally).
            Novelist Hosp’s Among Thieves follows more closely some of the actual theories about the Gardner heist. Much of the bona fide speculation does look to the IRA and Bulger as complicit. Among Thieves also recreates the internecine struggle in Boston between cops, the FBI, the IRA, and the Bulger legacy.
            Take your pick, but clearly it’s Among Thieves that gets us closer to full-blown reality.

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