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Stealing Rembrandts

Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

Myles J. Connor Jr. is a member of the high-IQ group Mensa. He collects antique Samurai swords, has owned a pet cobra and speaks with a high-flown Massachusetts Brahmin accent. In 1975, wearing a beard, glasses, tweed suit and fedora, he strode out of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts carrying Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak" (1632). An accomplice raked the museum steps with machine-gun fire to hold off guards, and the men sped away. They were smart, brash, precise, flamboyant: just what we expect from our art thieves and almost never get.

"Stealing Rembrandts" tells the story of modern art theft through the thefts of a single artist's work. It is a clever strategy, and Rembrandt a natural choice. The 17th-century Dutch master was heroically prolific; more than 2,000 of his paintings, drawings and etchings survive. Some of his canvases have fetched auction bids in the tens of millions of dollars. And because Rembrandt was a painter of masterly economy, his works tend to be small and portable. As a result, Rembrandt is among the most often stolen artists, topped only by Picasso. Some 80 of Rembrandt's works have been pilfered in the past 100 years.

There's the case of what is known as the Takeaway Rembrandt, a portrait of "Jacob de Gheyn III" (1632) that has been stolen four times from London's Dulwich Picture Gallery since 1966. There's the first museum robbery in which a gun was brandished, the 1972 theft from the Worcester Art Museum of "Portrait of St. Bartholomew" (1633). There's also a cinematic tale of a heist in Stockholm in 2000, featuring a speedboat getaway, cars set on fire to jam traffic and an undercover sting operation to recover the stolen painting, Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait" (1630).

Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg have a textured feel for Rembrandt's work. They have interviewed a lot of people. Most important, they have particular insight into at least one of the most well-known thefts: Mr. Amore is head of security, since 2005, at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, from which three Rembrandts and 10 other paintings were stolen in 1990. The criminals wore police uniforms and tied up the guards before vanishing with the art. Mr. Mashberg, a writer for the Boston Herald, has covered the still-unsolved heist for 14 years.

One unusual aspect of "Stealing Rembrandts" is that, in addition to talking to museum personnel, the authors interview art thieves. Among the more vividly rendered is Florian "Al" Monday. An orange-haired, tracksuit-wearing, bejeweled ex-convict toting an "unpublished typewritten memoir reeking of cigarette smoke," Monday was the brain behind the "St. Bartholomew" job, in which one of his lackeys shot a museum guard with a .22 and Monday was sentenced to 9-to-20 years in prison. He is a discerning felon. "No one touches Van Gogh," he sniffs to the authors, rating the painters he most admires. "Except maybe Renoir."

Monday's peers tend to be less refined, and the authors' encounters with them should shatter any grand impressions of art thieves that readers may harbor. These aren't debonair connoisseurs, à la Pierce Brosnan in the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair." Typically, they are small-time thieves, handymen, drug addicts. They are clumsy and brutal bumblers out of a Coen brothers movie. In 1973, Carl E. Horsley, a 21-year-old armed robber, took two lesser Rembrandts from the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, ignoring two much more valuable ones nearby; later, after getting caught and serving three years in prison, this criminal mastermind was arrested again for shoplifting candy and toothpaste in Kentucky.

We assume that the same creativity that goes into making art would go into stealing it. Instead, the authors show us again and again how artless most art theft is. Art crime, you see, is a dumb crime. With masterpieces in particular, it's virtually impossible to find a buyer for a stolen work. As the authors write: "A Rembrandt, real or imagined, is far harder to sell than it is to steal."

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Scouring away their subject's romantic patina has a downside, though. "Stealing Rembrandts" sometimes reads like a high-brow police blotter, a catalog derangée of petty crime. With depressing frequency, perps slash paintings out of their frames. They damage Old Masters by attempting to "clean" them. And forget about storage conditions: "Stolen Rembrandts have been tossed into car trunks, stored outdoors in sub-freezing barns and shacks, carried about in plastic shopping bags, and hidden under beds."

Mr. Amore did much of his research in order to get up to speed in his job at the Gardner. There's a get-the-whole-set completism to the book, as if the authors, in lieu of obsessively collecting Rembrandts, had decided to obsessively collect anecdotes of Rembrandt larceny. They are interested not merely in every single theft ever of a Rembrandt painting but also in thefts of fake Rembrandts and even of pieces by Rembrandt's teachers.

Strewn throughout the book, however, are compelling characters and insights into traits that "successful" art crimes typically share. In 80% of the thefts an insider is complicit, and the crimes tend to occur on or near holidays. (The Gardner heist took place late at night, when Boston was beery with St. Patrick's Day revelers.) Thieves who limit themselves to Rembrandt's etchings stand a better chance of success: Though the etchings fetch less than his paintings, they are easier to resell.

One subgenre of art theft has been sporadically effective: so-called art-napping. Though making the exchange without getting caught is tricky, some thieves have leveraged their plunder for a ransom or even more unusual bounties. At the time that Myles Connor made his getaway from Boston's MFA, he was facing trial in an earlier heist: He committed the new crime so that he could help to "solve" it. By facilitating the Rembrandt's return (not revealing that he himself had stolen it), he fashioned a reduced prison sentence for the earlier crime.

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