Trails leading to purloined paintings had surprising twists
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010
There are no gentleman art thieves. There is no dashing playboy who,
after lifting a Titian and stashing it in the hidden compartment of
his Bentley, unzips his jumpsuit to reveal a bespoke tuxedo and then
waltzes into the gala, pausing only to lift a champagne flute from the
tray of a passing waiter.
“There’s no such thing as the dashing connoisseur,” Anthony Amore told
me. “That’s almost unprecedented in history. It’s more the common
criminal. It’s never Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.”
Which, frankly, is a bit of a disappointment to those of us who
enjoyed “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
But Anthony should know. He is the director of security at Boston’s
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and he was in Washington not long ago
for the opening of a new exhibit at the National Museum of Crime and
Punishment,”Uncovering the Dark Arts: Thieves, Forgers and Tomb
Most museum security folks like to keep a low profile, as if
acknowledging their own existence might somehow encourage people to
steal from them. Not Anthony. He likes the limelight, possibly because
it’s hard for his museum to avoid it. The Gardner was the scene of the
biggest art heist in recent history: the theft on March 18, 1990, of
13 works of art, including a Vermeer, a Manet and three Rembrandts.
None has been recovered. (Anthony mentioned more than once that he was
not the head of security at the time of the theft.)
It got me thinking: What about Washington? We have plenty of museums.
Is our stuff not worth stealing?
Not at all. Washington Post researcher Meg Smith found all sorts of
robberies, mainly of artifacts, including a diamond-encrusted gold
snuffbox that once belonged to Catherine the Great. Stolen from the
Smithsonian in 1979, it was melted down for the metal.
But it’s a 10-year period at the Phillips Collection that intrigues
me the most. In 1953, someone stole a small painting by Swiss artist
Paul Klee called “Little Circus.” It was eventually returned to the
Phillips in the mail, wrapped in a copy of the Christian Science
Monitor along with a note that read, “Here ends two years of
In 1959, a still life by Henri Rousseau titled “The Pink Candle” was
taken from the Phillips. The next day, the painting’s frame was found
in Rock Creek Park. Not long after that, the museum received a phone
call from a man who said his “friend” knew where the painting was. The
“friend” hadn’t stolen it — heavens, no — and he wanted a reward.
The Phillips told him that it would not give a reward for stolen
property. The man then called a lawyer in an attempt to broker a deal,
but that fell through, and eventually the mysterious phone-caller said
he would leave a key inside the door of the attorney’s office that
would lead them to the painting.
The key fit Locker No. 318 at the Trailways bus station. Inside was
“The Pink Candle.”
The Phillips beefed up security after each theft, but that didn’t stop
a thief from ripping another Klee — a watercolor called “Little
Regatta,” valued at $20,000 — from the wall on Jan. 12, 1963. There
would be no quick reunion with this painting.
For more than 30 years, the work was listed as “stolen” in the
museum’s records. In 1997, it was returned by Edward Puhl, a retired
Boston area businessman. Puhl had purchased it at an outdoor antiques
fair in Southern Maryland a year or two after the theft. He said the
dealer selling it couldn’t guarantee it was a Klee, but it sure looked
like one to Puhl. When an expert who was brought in decades later to
appraise his works traced the painting to the Phillips, Puhl contacted
Except for whatever pains pricked at their consciences (“Here ends two
years of torment”), no one was ever punished for these thefts.
But I doubt the thieves were too troubled. Anthony Amore says most
thieves are common criminals, in it for the money. They don’t know
their Manets from their Monets. He thinks it’s likely the Gardner was
robbed by a criminal gang eager to have a “get out of jail free” card,
an insurance policy against prosecution in other crimes: Go easy on me
and I’ll tell you where you can find the Gardner loot.
Anthony is confident that the works will eventually return home.
Hey, the Phillips’s did.