Art Thieves & Forgers

March 18, 2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of the devastating art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston ( Thirteen masterpieces including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas, valued at over 500 million dollars, were stolen and never recovered. The Gardner Heist: A True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser relates how this terrible crime unfolded.

The shock that the city of Boston felt reverberated throughout the world wide art community. Art detectives, the local police, The F.B.I. and private investigators have tried to solve the crime which the author artfully recreates in his book. He delves into the inadequate state of security at the museum and takes the reader step by step through the evening as the guards are tied up and the thieves systematically remove the paintings from their frames.

Eerie reminders of this heinous crime are the empty frames that stand in the museum as placeholders where the missing paintings previously stood. Today, there is still an active investigation being conducted to recover the artwork, but, to date, it has been unsuccessful and the 5 million dollar reward remains uncollected.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo brings another type of art malfeasance to light. In their book, the authors follow the criminal career of John Drewe. Drew is an Englishman who posed as an art expert, historian, arms dealer, physicist and a wealthy business owner. He offered paintings by famous artists such as Giacometti, Dubuffet and Picasso to private collectors, art galleries and museums. These institutions and individuals did not realize that these works were actually copies painted by John Myatt, an art school graduate and unemployed school teacher, who could forge pieces of art using common house paint. Drewe then ingratiated himself with various art institutions, including the Tate Gallery, and managed to tamper with and fake the documents proving the provenance, or authenticity, of the paintings.

Although a few people seemed suspicious of Mr Drewe’s art offerings and background, it took many years before the art world became aware that he was not the gentleman he posed as, but rather a sociopath, con man and a common thief. He preyed on gullible and unsuspecting gallery owners and archivists before his whole world came tumbling down.

The breadth of Drew and Myatt’s duplicity was eventually uncovered and both were prosecuted. Mr. Myatt now paints ‘legitimate’ fake paintings while Mr. Drew insists that the charges against him were false, and he is the innocent victim of various conspiracies. This is such a strange and disturbing tale, made more so by the fact that it is true.

For more books on art crimes, check out my post: Art Thefts, Forgeries and Frauds: A Book List

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