The as-yet-unsolved March 18, 1990, heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston netted paintings by Degas, Rembrandt and Manet, but it is Vermeer’s “The Concert” that was — and is — the most painfully missed of all the stolen works of art. This is due to Dutch artist’s comparatively limited output, early death and the near-universal affection felt for his paintings — an affection mirrored in Rebecca Dreyfus’ “Stolen,” a docu that should appeal not just to the legion of Vermeer fans, but to lovers of good mystery. Upscale and arts-oriented specialty venues and public TV beckon.
Since it’s a mystery without resolution, subject is a difficult one to make suspenseful, although Dreyfus works magic with what few strands of hope remain attached to finding the missing masterworks. Via an imaginative use of still photos, 19th-century archival material, pictorial publications and the paintings themselves, she lays out the case and, wisely, builds it around two characters who couldn’t be more different, or contrast more poignantly.
One is Isabella Stewart Gardner, the 19th century socialite who, upon the death of an infant son, moved to Europe with her husband and proceeded to amass an art collection now worth billions. Gardner, we’re told, was also disappointed in her looks; perhaps she compensated by buying up the beauty of the world.
The other character is Harold Smith, a contemporary “art detective” whose face is scarred by skin cancer. Earthy, intelligent and wonderfully humorous — he jokes about his prosthetic nose having once fallen off during a meeting with agents of Lloyds of London — he is Dreyfus’ guide to the world of stolen art, as well as a poignant counterbalance to the 100-year-old Gardner story. Indeed, Smith is far more likable than Gardner who, despite endowing a wonderful museum, forbid it in her will to change.
This might be why Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg says of the robbery, “There was something rude about it,” as if the old lady herself had been held up at gunpoint.
More chilling are the various explanations for where the missing art might be. Invoked are the Irish Republican Army, Boston Irish mobsters like James “Whitey” Bulger and various lowlifes, several of whom talk frankly to Dreyfus about the mechanics of art theft. “I had at one time planned to rob the place,” says Myles Connor, who once took a Rembrandt from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The Gardner museum was a security joke, Dreyfus insists, in not so many words. What she doesn’t say, and one wishes she had, is something about the mind of a person who would steal, or order stolen, a great work of art and effectively remove it from the world. If the Vermeer, and its fellow hostages, aren’t in limbo between criminals, prosecutors and politicians, Dreyfus implies, then they’re on someone’s bedroom wall.
Gardner (voiced by Blythe Danner), in one of her letters to her art dealer, the legendary Bernard Berenson (Campbell Scott), speaks of the privilege of being able to see her paintings anytime and any way she wanted. Dreyfus might have taken a cue from this observation to explore the psychology of possession, and possessiveness, and how it differs in art buyers and art thieves.