Shortly after midnight on December 31, 1966, thieves employing a drill and a brace to knock out a panel from a seldom-used oak door broke into the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. They stole Rembrandt’s painting Jacob de Gheyn III, two other Rembrandts, and works by Peter Paul Rubens, Gerard Dou, and Adam Elsheimer.
This was the first time Rembrandt’s portrait of the engraver Jacob de Gheyn III was stolen from Dulwich. It was eventually recovered, only to be stolen and recovered three more times—in 1973, 1981, and 1983. The painting, which measures 11.8 inches by 9.8 inches, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently stolen artwork and has become known as the “Takeaway Rembrandt.”
How the painting was taken away and recovered (the other works in the 1966 theft were also returned) is one of the many fascinating true-crime tales in Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg. Amore has been security director since 2005 of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where 13 works, including two Rembrandt paintings and an etching, were stolen in 1990 in the greatest unsolved art theft in history. Mashberg is an award-winning investigative reporter and the Sunday editor of the Boston Herald.
Amore and Mashberg have explored all the known thefts of Rembrandt paintings, drawings, and etchings during the last century. The total number of thefts is 81, although the authors point out that the list is incomplete because thefts are not always made public. The figure does not include Rembrandts stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Even Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam, where he lived between 1639 and 1658, has been burglarized twice.
Stealing Rembrandts is filled with memorable characters. There is James L. Hough, a “bit of an operator but not a career criminal,” who owned a Cincinnati bar called the Speak-Easy Nightclub and who was known among retired police officers as a con artist who drove around his neighborhood with a pet lion in his convertible.
There is Myles J. Connor Jr., whose father was a decorated police sergeant. He staged a theft of a Rembrandt from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on the morning jurors were being picked for his trial on another burglary charge. Connor robbed at least a dozen museums in New England in the 1960s and ’70s and spent as many years in federal prisons.
In the 17th century, criminals received harsher sentences. Rembrandt’s two autopsy paintings feature repeat offenders being dissected after their executions. “Unlike his Dutch criminal predecessors,” the authors write, Connor has gone on to live “a quiet, retired life, raising exotic animals and admiring the few things he still owns from a long life of crime.”
Florian “Al” Monday, who masterminded many art thefts, according to the authors, is another who is still enjoying life. Now in his 70s, his bushy white hair dyed Day-Glo orange, he says he knows of a lightly guarded Renoir at a small college in New England and adds that “I’m thinking of banging the place.”
One of the best chapters in the book deals with a theft from the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati in 1973. It was a three-ring circus involving two 20-year-old thieves who stole the wrong two Rembrandts, Portrait of an Elderly Woman and Man Leaning on a Sill, leaving behind two others that were significantly more valuable. The stolen works were recovered in less than a week, along with $99,976 in ransom money paid by the museum. (The thieves had spent the other $24 at a fast-food restaurant.)
The two perpetrators, as well as an “intermediary,” wound up in prison. But, as the authors tell us, what may have bothered them more was the decision, 13 years later, by the Rembrandt Research Project to remove Man Leaning on a Sill from its list of original Rembrandts.
If the authors have given us too much about the life and times of Rembrandt, it’s a minor issue. This is a terrific book, and excellently researched.
After the 1981 theft of Jacob de Gheyn III, the Dulwich Picture Gallery updated its security system. But that didn’t prevent the theft of the painting for the fourth time, in 1983.
“We have some bad news, sir,” the investigating officer told Giles Waterfield, the gallery director. “The Rembrandt is gone again.” Following a tip to the police in 1986, the painting was found at a train station in Germany. Although in good condition, it was kept in hiding at the gallery after its return.
“The temptation is to lock the wretched thing away and put up a color photograph,” Waterfield said. A few weeks later he changed his mind, and the portrait was back on the wall. It is now worth $10 million, the authors write, “and has remained unmolested for a quarter century.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.