Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Gardner Heist, Stendhal's Syndrome & Double Rainbow Mash-Up

(updated 8/15/11) The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser's 2009 bestseller about the largest art heist in history, is a fascinating true-crime whodunit, a wild ride through the underbelly of the art world -- a dangerous place described by experts as the "Lost Museum" where enough stolen artworks exist to make the "Louvre seem like a small-town art gallery in comparison."

Early on the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, tied up the two guards on duty and stole 13 works of art, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. Estimates place the value of the stolen works at around $500 million and the case remains unsolved to this day.

The paintings were not insured and in any case couldn't be replaced with other work because of Gardner's will, which forbade any changes to her museum. "Nothing could be added or taken away. Not a Chippendale chair, not a Rembrandt canvas, not a bamboo window shade. Everything must remain in the same Victorian patchwork of wood-paneled corners and draped alcoves, or the trustees would be required to sell off the collection and donate the profits to Harvard University."

Author Ulrich Boser stumbles into the Gardner case after contacting veteran art detective Harold Smith in 2005 to write an article about him. Boser soon learns that there is one case that haunts Smith, the Gardner heist: "Smith had been searching for the missing masterpieces for years. He hopscotched the globe to meet with sources. He spent hundreds of thousands of his own money on leads . . . [he] swore to everyone that he met that he wouldn't stop working the case until the art hung again on the walls of the museum."

The elderly Smith dies suddenly (of natural causes) a few weeks after his initial meeting with Boser, but not before Boser has become interested in the case. With the family's blessing and access to Smith's files, he picks up the trail of the investigation and ultimately becomes obsessed with the crime:

"It was more like a mystery with a capital M, the sort of enigma that you find in church pews or philosophy lectures or on the canvas of an Old Master painting, something clear and compelling but also abstruse and obscure, something essentially unknowable."

Your hopes will soar and come crashing down as Boser tracks down every lead, only to find countless dead-ends, nefarious characters, encounters with the Irish mob, death threats, bodies in trunks of cars, and endless speculation.

You'll learn that "most art crooks are motivated by the lure of easy money and, relative to their size, top-notch paintings represent some of the most valuable items on the planet. A minor Picasso or Van Gogh carries a bigger price tag than the finest diamonds or the purest gold, and a major canvas by an Old Master might have the value of a Gulfstream jet or a small ocean liner." You'll also learn that because famous stolen paintings are almost impossible to sell, they are used as a type of underworld cash or bond, traded for guns, drugs or jewels.

You will cringe as you read how the thieves mishandled the priceless paintings, breaking them from their frames and slashing them off the stretcher bars, leaving behind "bits of canvas, flecks of paint, and the dreams of countless art lovers."

Speculation about what condition the paintings might be in today will make you want to cry: "An Old Master painting is as dry and brittle as a potato chip, and if it's removed from its setting, the canvas can bend and buckle and crack, the paint peeling off in thick flakes like dried glue."

After tracking down hundreds of leads and conducting over 200 interviews, Boser feels he is no closer to solving the case than when he started. He believes that brutal Boston mob boss Ray "Whitey" Bulger holds the key to finding the Gardner paintings. Having been told that Bulger is hiding out in a seaside village in Ireland, Boser impulsively books a flight there. After moving from village to village, strolling the streets hoping to spot Bulger, he realizes his obsession has gotten out of control: "It had been a wild, harebrained scheme from the start. My zeal had gotten the better of me. I felt stupidly naive. There were never any concrete clues of an Irish angle."

In the end, Boser returns home and doesn't solve the case. He does, however, put forth a plausible scenario based on his research and new evidence that he uncovers by interviewing witnesses that the police ignored. He believes that the mystery may ultimately be unsolvable due to the untimely and violent deaths of key figures. We, like Boser, are left knowing the masterpieces are out there somewhere and wondering if they will ever resurface to be replaced in their empty frames awaiting them at the Gardner.

Click here to buy The Gardner Heist from Barnes & Noble

Stendhal's Syndrome

Wikipedia describes Stendhal's syndrome (or hyperkulturemia) as:

"a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place."

The syndrome is named after the 19th century French author Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle), who described his experience with the phenomenon during his 1817 visit to Florence in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.

Stendhal recounted: "On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."

It wasn't until more recent times that a Florentine psychiatrist, Dr. Graziella Magherina, labeled the phenomenon "Stendhal's Syndrome" having treated many patients with similar symptoms. Magherini wrote a book on the subject, La Sindrome di Stendhal, where she looks at over a hundred case studies.
While I don't know if it would qualify as Stendhal's Syndrome, I did burst out crying in front of a painting years ago, at LACMA here in Los Angeles (that just doesn't have the same ring to it as the Uffizi in Firenze).
Wassily Kandinsky, Lady in Moscow,
1912, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus,
Munich, Germany

It was an emotionally difficult time in my life and the painting was an early Kandinsky, Lady in Moscow (left). That black blob hovering over an otherwise normal, happy-looking scene did me in. Embarrassed, I made a beeline to the nearest restroom until I could get myself under control.

Anyone else dare to admit to such 19th century hysterics? Let me know.

Double Rainbow/Donald Judd Mash-Up

Speaking of art and hysterics, thanks to artist Susanna Dadd for sending me the following hysterical video:

Untitled from VJ Peter Rand on Vimeo.

Currently on View at Offramp Gallery

Please join us for a closing reception and artist's talk with Anita Bunn on Sunday, February 6, 2-5pm.In her second solo show at Offramp Gallery, The Sun Tells Quite Another Story, photographer Anita Bunn presents a new series of works that continue her exploration of the act of noticing as well as the temporal nature of the still and moving image. 

Upcoming at Offramp Gallery

Theodore Svenningsen: Truth and Self Deception
February 20 - March 20, 2011
Opening Reception: Sunday, February 20, 2-5pm


  1. Mr.Boser seems very entralled by the "Southy"
    Mob scene in Boston and the spector and legend
    of Whitey Bulger..........more than missing
    Vermeer or Rembrandts....agree the book is fascinating in a way.....hard not to be ambushed
    by the enormity of this loss to the Gardner..

  2. Well, I wept at Renoir's "Two Sisters" at the Art Institute of Chicago. But maybe that is banal to modern art folks like you.

  3. Just received a payment for $500.

    Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much money you can earn taking paid surveys at home...

    So I show them a video of myself getting paid $500 for taking paid surveys to finally set the record straight.