Gardner heist story is a lesson for writers: be the artist

Today was a great day for those of us who love to follow news and love mysteries at the same time. The FBI announced it knows who the culprits are in the 23-year-old Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.

When the museum was robbed in the wee hours of March 18, 1990, 13 pieces of art, many considered priceless, were taken. It’s considered one of the biggest property thefts in world history.

Part of the Boston Globe’s coverage of the robbery in today’s paper (or on the website, since this is 2013) is a great column by Globe art critic Sebastian Smee about the real meaning of the theft.

Smee writes, “We all love an unsolved art heist. The bravado, the brutality, the mysteries of motive and aftermath — it all seems perfectly cinema-ready. But whenever you think about the pictures themselves, it’s all just incredibly sad.”

With that, he nails why it is such a great story.

Any mystery, the real ones and fiction, need all those exciting elements — bravado, intrigue. The plot stuff. The best mysteries go deeper. They get to the sad.

One of the biggest losses in the theft was Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Gallilee.”
Smee gives a number of reasons the loss of this painting (cut out of its frame, which still hangs in the museum) is significant. But one of the best reasons is something writers and those who love a good story can also appreciate.

“He was the best, in other words, at using all the tools of picture construction (composition, lighting, facial and bodily expression) to create drama, to give stories and parables their greatest possible human significance and emotional impact,” Smee writes.

In other words, Rembrandt layered his “story” will all sorts of elements, both human and artistic. Smee, in describing the importance of that painting and others stolen in the heist, gives a lot more wallop to what’s treated in the news story as a straight cops and caper story.

The fact the empty frame, and that of the rest of the stolen art, hangs in the museum, is a poignant note that I’d like to see in every story about the stolen art, but rarely do.

One name that appears in the news story is Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s head of security. Some reading this may have heard his entertaining talk at the MWA/SinC Crimebake conference two years ago. Amore is also the author of “Stealing Rembrandt,” a look at some of the most notorious art crimes in history (sadly, the Gardner heist isn’t included, because it’s an ongoing case).

One point Amore made at Crimebake and in his books is that a lot of crooks are dumb.
Paintings, which are surprisingly easy to steal, and they’re worth a lot of money, so crooks steal them. What they don’t realize is, once stolen, the paintings are really hard to get rid of or make any money from.

There is rarely, if ever, an eccentric billionaire sitting in his basement gloating over the priceless acquisitions he paid the thieves to get for him. That just doesn’t happen, as much as it makes for good TV and movies.

The difficultly getting rid of stolen priceless art is probably one reason the Gardner paintings have been passed around from “owner” to “owner” the past 23 years. No one knows what to do with them.

The news story talks about the passing around, but doesn’t specify why.

And this all comes around to the initial point of this: a story has a lot of parts. The more they’re included, and the better they’re included, the better the story.

Rembrandt got it. Smee gets it.

As a news editor, I’d love to see a newspaper story on this that packs not only the caper and cops aspects, but some of the things Smee has written about and some of Amore’s points about the futility and comedy of stealing art.

As a reader, I’d like that, too.
As a writer, I’m going to try to remember it.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Crime Bake, Editing, Maureen Milliken, Of Interest, Writers, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gardner heist story is a lesson for writers: be the artist

  1. liz milliken says:

    Very nice blog Mo! Such an intriguing story. So sad that those beautiful paintings are stuck somewhere out of sight.

  2. Great post. And I’m with you–I love this story. But it does get to the sad, as they all do.

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