Paintings Stolen? The Mafia? Why, Of Course.

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On Monday, the FBI fessed up: After 23 years of investigation, they’ve decided that the thieves behind the fabled art heist in Boston were…well…a criminal organization. Where from? Well…just down the road: based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States.

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Vermeer’s “The Concert”

The federal agency called a press conference on the anniversary of, as The New York Times tells it:

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…one of the most brazen art thefts in history. Two thieves, posing as police officers, prevailed on the night watchman at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to let them in. After tying him up, and a leisurely 81 minutes, they walked out with 13 works of art and into the annals of one of the world’s most infamous unsolved crimes.

American media-from the Times to CNN to NPR to even hyperallergic.com jumped with both skis at the FBI’s Monday announcement. Meanwhile, on Wednesday in UK’s The Guardian, art critic Jason Jones just yawned. In his column headlined “Art heists: more Tony Soprano than George Clooney” he observed:

In every major art crime I have covered as a journalist, including the notorious theft of The Scream in Norway, there turned out to be a gangland connection. It might be the mafia, it might be some lesser bunch of drug and gun lords, but these art heists always seem to be the work of organised criminals. Now it seems the Boston theft was, too. How many years were wasted pursuing other leads?

People fantasise about art theft, imagining gentlemen thieves perpetrating elegant, even tasteful crimes. In reality, it usually turns out to be gangsters. Instead of being diverted by elaborate hypotheses, in every case the police should start by asking their snoops in the biggest local crime outfit.

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Jason Jones

Jones notes that the stolen works included “the most devastating losses Rembrandt’s 1633 painting Storm On the Sea of Galilee and The Concert by Vermeer.” He adds that organized crime’s theft of the art worth $500 million is a grave sign:

…this is a chilling revelation. It squares up strangely with another of the biggest modern art crimes, the theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily in 1969. The mafia was always prime suspect, and in 1996 a pentito – a member of Cosa Nostra turned informant – revealed to a Palermo courtroom that not only did the Sicilian crime organisation steal the Caravaggio, they knocked it about so badly it was destroyed.

His connotation: Thieves don’t rate highly as caretakers. The stolen art, after all this time, could never be found, or may no longer be around.

But we do see cases of stolen art reappearing after some years passing. And that idea led Carmen Ortiz, a United States attorney who attended the FBI’s news conference, to say: “I think we’re all optimistic that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place.”

Says Jason Jones:

Meanwhile, Tony Soprano is sitting in a backroom some place, smoking a cigar, gazing thoughtfully at Rembrandt’s Storm On the Sea of Galilee. Yeah, life can get stormy sometimes. It ain’t always pretty.