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The Gardner Museum Heist: Background information when reading The Last Mona Lisa

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The Last Mona Lisa by Jonathan Santlofer

The Last Mona Lisa

by Jonathan Santlofer
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  • Aug 17, 2021
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  • Aug 2021
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The Gardner Museum Heist

This article relates to The Last Mona Lisa

Print Review

An empty frame at the Gardner Museum The Last Mona Lisa is a fictionalized account of the real 1911 theft of the famous da Vinci painting of the title. Despite extensive investigation, it took more than two years for the painting to be recovered and returned to the Louvre. Other art heists don't have such happy outcomes: Sometimes stolen paintings are damaged or destroyed, and in some cases, the art simply vanishes, hidden away in a private collection and never seen in public again. Luke, the main character in the novel, gets a glimpse into one such private collection, seeing a painting that went missing in the heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—a crime that has never been solved. Although this private collection is fictional, the theft at the Gardner Museum actually happened, and the artwork has never been recovered.

On March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers arrived at the Gardner Museum, claiming to be responding to a disturbance. A young guard broke security protocol and admitted the men, only to be handcuffed and tied up along with the other guard on duty. Eighty-one minutes later, the thieves were gone, along with 13 works of art, including 11 paintings, a French Imperial eagle finial and an ancient bronze Chinese gu. The paintings included Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt's only seascape, and Vermeer's The Concert, one of approximately three dozen works by the artist.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office began investigating the crime, and the museum offered a $1 million reward for the return of the works. Initial leads hit dead ends, and the lack of apparent pattern in the pieces taken—Titian's The Rape of Europa, the museum's most expensive piece, was untouched—further confounded investigators. Eventually, the case ran cold without any clear indication of the pieces' whereabouts. The paintings' empty frames remain hanging in the museum, serving as symbols of hope that they will one day again be filled.

It wasn't until 2013 that the FBI announced a major break in the case. The organization had identified the two thieves and had tracked the paintings from the museum to Connecticut and Philadelphia, where the pieces were offered for sale on the black market. Although the FBI declined to publicly name the criminals, they did state that the pair were members of a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. In 2015, it was first revealed by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr that the two men were George Reissfelder and Lenny DiMuzio, known associates of mobster Carmello Merlino. Unfortunately, no one could tell authorities what had happened to the art; Reissfelder and DiMuzio had each died within a year of the heist, and Merlino had died in 2005.

The identity of the thieves doesn't matter to Anthony Amore, the Director of Security at the Gardner Museum. His priority is bringing the stolen art home, and there's now a $10 million reward for information leading to the safe return of the pieces. The museum, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office are still seeking viable leads that would help locate the pieces, now estimated to be worth approximately $600 million. Although more than three decades have passed since the theft, the Gardner Museum and investigators remain hopeful that the stolen art will one day be returned, just as the Mona Lisa was eventually returned to the Louvre. "I have visited the [Gardner] museum several times," U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in 2013, "and each time I…saw the empty frames, I was reminded of the enormous impact of this theft. I do remain optimistic that one day soon the paintings will be returned to their rightful place." Only time will tell if these hopes are fulfilled.

An empty frame at the Gardner Museum where Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was once displayed. Source: FBI

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Jordan Lynch

This article relates to The Last Mona Lisa. It first ran in the October 6, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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