|Rembrandt, "Christ in the Storm," stolen March 18, 1990|
Today is the 25th anniversary of the largest art theft in United States history, the looting of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. I have a special interest in the crime, as I visited the museum five years before it was robbed, even though at the time I found it a "weird, debilitating collection of dark, gilt baroque pieces, artlessly assembled in dim corridors and mocked by bright flowers assembled in hideous inner courtyard like Sears Garden Center." I still like the place, and went back when I was touring the East Coast with the family, to gaze sadly at the empty frames the museum keeps hung in their places, waiting for their masterpieces back. The FBI marked the anniversary by saying it is closing in on the culprits, but we've heard that before. This is from 1997, when I met with Dr. Walter McCrone, "the Father of Modern Microscopy," to investigate some potential clues. Dr. McCrone died in 2002.
The saga of the biggest art heist in modern history made a pit stop in Chicago last week, in the form of a thimble's worth of paint flecks arriving under escort at the Michigan Avenue laboratory of Dr. Walter McCrone.
The flecks may or may not be from a pair of Rembrandts that were slashed from their frames by two crooks who strolled into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum dressed as policemen seven years ago and strolled out with $300 million worth of art, including works by Degas, Manet and Vermeer.
If you're not the sort who haunts art museums, then Isabella Stewart Gardner might sound like the name of just another rich benefactress. She was, but an especially charming and egocentric one. She handed over her mansion, built in the style of a 15th century Venetian palace, filled with hundreds of art treasures, with the stipulation that the artworks never be sold, never be loaned, and nothing change in the home she had enjoyed.
And nothing did. I was lucky enough to visit before the thefts. The Gardner wasn't so much like a museum as like the mansion of some dotty rich aunt who had stepped out for a cup of elderberry tea. The place was dark, the guards antiques themselves. Black velvet clothes covered glass cases of medieval rarities—visitors were expected to pull the velvet aside, get an eyeful, then push it back. The place was very low tech, very old and very lovely.
The theft of the dozen artworks shattered this sealed-off little world and made it mournful. The spots where the paintings had been displayed were left empty, marked by placards reading "Stolen March 18, 1990."
The police were stymied. The trail grew so cold that when the Gardner offered a cool $1 million reward, no questions asked, for the return of the paintings, it emphasized that the thieves were welcome to collect the money.
The paintings had been insured for damage, but not for theft.
The flecks of paint under McCrone's microscope were offered up by a pair of characters named Myles Connor Jr. and William Youngworth III, who say they know where the paintings are and will arrange their safe return in exchange for immunity from prosecution and the reward from the museum, now swelled to $ 5 million. And they want one other thing, too: Connor's release from prison. He's in for—guess what? -- art theft.
As evidence that they have the Rembrandts, they turned some chips of paint over to the Boston Herald. The delegation in McCrone's office was from the Herald, with a TV crew in tow, to see if the flecks were indeed the real McCoy.
Authenticating a Rembrandt is tricky stuff even when you have an entire painting to work with. Approximately half of all the pictures that have been called Rembrandts and hung in museums later were determined to be the work of students or disciples or out-and-out forgers.
Ever the cautious scientist, McCrone won't say the chips are from a Rembrandt, only that they aren't not from a Rembrandt. That was enough to cause a whoop of joy in Boston.
"The Boston Herald came out with a headline saying I said it is a Rembrandt, but that isn't what I said in my report to them," McCrone said. "I can say I can't find any reason to think it is not by Rembrandt, and there are lots of positive indications it may well be."
McCrone is one a handful of microscopy experts in the country who aid law enforcement and art curation by gazing at evidence, micron by micron. He debunked the Shroud of Turin—among all but the most die-hard believers—by amassing evidence that it is a 13th century creation.
The key to his work is knowing the history of paints and looking for hues that came into being at a certain time. Prussian blue, for instance, was created in 1704, and since Rembrandt died in 1669, finding that particular blue in a purported Rembrandt is like finding a bar code on a Ming vase.
The flecks were all smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. McCrone, using an optical microscope (he scorns those fancy electron jobbies), looked for colors of paint that would rule out a painting as Rembrandt's.
"Those were all absent," he said. "And the ones there were very typical of the form and composition Rembrandt did use."
McCrone's work is time-intensive, and while he employs a dozen associates at the lab, he still puts in long hours. On a typical day he arrives by 3:15 in the morning and stays until after 6 p.m.
He walks every day, the two miles from his home in the Lake Meadows development by Michael Reese Hospital. "I don't own an overcoat or hat," he said with a certain pride. McCrone is 81 years old.
"Work is my hobby—I've got a lot of interesting things to work on," he concluded. "I've been lucky."
Maybe a bit of McCrone's luck will rub off on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and they'll get those paintings back.
—Published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 19, 1997