March 18

The Empty Frames


You stare at the empty frame and wonder what a Rembrandt seascape would look like.  The patterned wallpaper shows behind the space where The Storm on the Sea of Galilee used to hang.

Theres also black background behind the empty frame that used to hold Vermeers The Concert.

On March 18, 1990, thirteen masterpieces were stolen from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston.  Disguised as policemen, the thieves entered the museum early in the morning, and walked away with works valued in excess of $500,000.

Imagine the value of todays loss. 

Previously, the empty frames stood out among paintings the thieves left behind — missing pieces making their own stark, forlorn statement among remaining treasures. 

You look on either side of the spot for Rembrandts seascape, formerly flanked by a painting of a mother and child, and a nobleman in a long black coat.  Those two paintings are missing, too.

Along with every other painting in the museum.

Its all gone — all the fine art here in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, but also in the National Gallery, in the Louvre, in the Rijksmuseum.  Overnight, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been scraped down to the underlying plaster.  Private homes and public exhibitions were equally targeted.

Initial theories suggested a concerted effort among a network of thieves.  The motive?  Money was the first guess, but the magnitude of the crimes suggested something more sinister:  an attempt to demoralize, to deprive citizens of the enriching power of beauty and expressive art.

Review of security-camera footage offered no view of the multiple thefts.  The art was simply there, and then it was not.  The only remaining theories resort to supernatural agency, or the targeted effect of some other-worldly force. 

You walk through the museum, examine empty frame after empty frame, suffer the beginning phase of a soul-dampening loss as you wonder what  terrible axe will fall next.