In the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, a group of well-organized and expertly disguised thieves broke into Boston’s famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with thirteen priceless paintings. This daring theft became the most successful art heist in modern history and filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus brings the amazing story to the screen in “Stolen.”
Dreyfus contacted famed art detective Harold Smith, a man who has battled severe skin cancer for many years, to see if he would help her with her documentary work about the notorious robbery. Smith, a dynamic figure dedicated to his profession, agrees but only if the filmmaker will make a visual document about the long-running investigation – which Smith will continue to pursue - to recover the priceless stolen art works.
The 13 stolen paintings represent the works of some of the greatest art masters in the world, including five Degas, one Manet, one Flinck, three Rembrandt and Vermeer’s The Concert – considered the most valuable painting ever stolen in modern times. (The Vermeer painting is one of only 35 works by the great artist.) With one of the most amazing private art collections at their disposal, the thieves made their selections very carefully, indeed.
The investigation by Smith travels to several countries and seeks the help of a variety of colorful figures in the art theft/art fencing world. These include master art thief Myles Connor, shady fence William Youngsworth, illegal art broker turned legit dealer Paul “Turbocharger” Hendry, former IRA leader and now Irish Senator Mark Ferris and Scotland Yard art detective Dick Ellis, among others. The speculation over the identity of the thieves brings to light information implicating Boston crime boss Whitey Bolger and, even, the Irish Republican Army. At one point the idea is bandied about to bring Senator Ted Kennedy and the Vatican into the mix to help negotiate with the IRA.
This is an interesting documentary that, at times, goes off on tangents, losing somewhat the thread of the subject at hand. We get an interesting history of Vermeer’s work and the impact on the art world of the loss of “The Concert” and insight into Isabella Stewart Gardner and her vision to create the best private art collection in the world – which is done via the reading of letters between Gardner and her loyal art procurer, Bernard Berenson (with Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott giving voice to the historical figures). The film is padded with long images of breaking waves and flying birds that look nice but have nothing to do with the story.
Dreyfus, when she sticks to her subject, does tell a compelling, unsolved mystery story with Harold Smith – a man, literally, falling apart because of his debilitating skin disease (another story that is told) – at its center. In the end, the question remains: who the heck did the theft and where are the paintings now? I give “Stolen” a B.Laura:
In the wee hours following Boston's St. Patrick's Day celebrations, Boston cops arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, where guards granted them access. But these weren't real police. After binding and gagging the museum's watch staff, the thieves made off with thirteen paintings, including what is purported to be the most valuable stolen painting in the world, Vermeer's 'The Concert.' Documentarian Rebecca Dreyfus reopens the case by enlisting the services of art detective Harold Smith in "Stolen."
Dreyfus has found herself an unlikely star in Smith and she digs deeply into the background of the missing artwork but her subject's open endedness and her failure to ask some rather obvious questions blunt the impact of her curious case. "Stolen" is still of value, though, with its dapper detective of the present day trying to service the uniquely forward-thinking nineteenth century woman whose museum is now home to thirteen elaborate yet empty frames.
Dreyfus, who is aided here by Albert Maysles on camera, largely sticks to mixing a talking head format with some artsy tracking shots. We get a flavor for the eccentric Gardner museum from Herald writer Tom Mashberg, who hits the nail on the head by describing the robbing of it as being 'rude.' The woman who created it imagined Italianate Venetian villas presenting their facades to an interior courtyard, then placed her paintings with her own aesthetic, amidst exotic plants and winding staircases. The woman who scandalized Boston society bequeathed her museum to the city with the stipulation that her collection remain undisturbed, neither added to nor removed from.
Harold Smith can just imagine the lady's horror at what has occurred (Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott read the letters of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her European art envoy Bernard Berenson over historical photos of the time, filling in her history). Smith paints a jaunty picture with his slim, suited frame topped by black fedora, his black eye patch lending a rakish air. But then you notice there's something odd. Yes, that's a prosthetic nose and bandages appear and disappear from his face. Smith suffers from an extreme case of skin cancer, yet his bright inquisitiveness and spry step belie his condition. His trail leads us to Myles Connor, a notorious art thief who was jailed at the time of the robbery who believes people he knew pulled off the job. He claims he could get the paintings back, as does William Youngsworth, a blowhard scam artist 'antiques dealer.' Youngsworth proposes a deal between Senator Edward Kennedy and an Irish senator with IRA ties would work and that he himself could broker the return within thirty minutes from where he sits. And herein lies the film's biggest problem - if inside experts claim the beloved artwork could be reclaimed so easily, why hasn't it happened? Dreyfus doesn't go there. Nor does she go as far as she could backgrounding that weird Irish IRA connection (remember Dublin gangster Martin Cahill's similar exploits depicted in 1998's "The General?" - he's never mentioned). Man of the moment, Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, does get his due, though, as another who could easily get his hands on the loot.
She does, however, do a good job of explaining just why the loss of these particular paintings is so heartbreaking for so many, particularly of that Vermeer. What she loses in modern day intrigue, she makes up for with history, art lessons and a detective straight out of Agatha Christie.
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