The Gardner Art Theft

by Haley Bice 6 months ago in investigation

Art History Essay, 2013

The Gardner Art Theft

The laws pertaining to art theft cases have always been subject to changes and upheavals. As of today, there is a twenty-year statute of limitations on art theft. However, in the past, the government only allowed a five-year statute of limitations for general thefts, including artwork. How long an investigation should continue before the FBI finds a culprit or the case closes without a conclusion has always been subject for debate. This debate continues now that the statute of limitations has expired on one of the biggest art thefts in the world- the theft from the Isabella Gardner Museum.

Stolen works of art, such as the pieces in the art museum of Isabella Gardner, have a growing industry- as long as the thieves have a market in which to sell.

Trade in stolen art is the fastest-growing crime in the United States and the third largest part of international criminal activity. The civil law countries of Europe tend to protect subsequent, innocent purchasers. Export laws must be enforced by the exporting country, not the importing country. (Palmer, 1)

In this case, though, the FBI has brought the stolen art to the forefront because in a big heist like this it is doubtful the thieves can do anything with the art pieces. It is highly likely that the thieves are waiting for the heat from the FBI to die down- and have been waiting now for twenty years, over these years the case became more and more popular.

The FBI has primary investigative jurisdiction for all federal criminal laws except cases in which responsibility is, by statute or otherwise, specifically assigned to another agency… Title 18, United States Code, Section 668 - Theft of Major Artwork [makes] it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object of cultural heritage from a museum. The statute also prohibits the "fencing" or possession of such objects, knowing them to be stolen. (Art Theft: jurisdiction/ legislation, 1)

Originally, stolen artwork was still overseen by the FBI, however, it was listed under general art theft laws which have a five year statute of limitation. “In 1994, at the [Gardner] museum’s urging, Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped pass a law that made it a federal crime to steal, receive or dispose of any cultural object worth more than $100,000.”(Boser, 1) By doing so, the senator helped change the law to make the Isabella Gardner Museum’s art theft a federal crime- that also increased the statute of limitations to twenty years.

Because the five-year statute had not yet expired, it was legal for that statute to increase to the new 20 year time span, which may have seemed like plenty of time to catch the art thieves back when the government passed the law. Statutes of limitations are important because they allow crimes to expire- it means the courts cannot prosecute a criminal for a crime that was committed years prior and people will not be “hounded by investigators” for cases that have gone unsolved and have become unclear over time. (Peters, 1) However, this case remains unsolved to the public and now it would seem that the criminals would go unpunished. While it is possible the FBI will prosecute those who possess the art pieces under title 18 mentioned earlier, there is no promising that the actual thieves still have the artwork.

Time is often the enemy of crime investigators; the trail quickly gets cold. But time has changed the Gardner case in one way that could increase the chances of the paintings' being recovered: The statute of limitations has passed for prosecution of the theft itself. And the US attorney in Boston now says he will not prosecute anyone who has the paintings and offers to return them. (Kurkjian, 1)

They want to focus on getting the artwork back rather than punishing the criminals who took them. Now that the twenty-year statute of limitations has expired, the FBI also wants to change their focus. It can be argued that art theft statute of limitations should never expire- so a situation like this never happens again. However, on this particular case there is no going back, the time period is over and everyone just wants to see the artworks returned to their rightful location.

It has been suggested that the Gardner museum would not be nearly as successful or well-known as it is today without the famous theft.

What if the heist of the century turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Gardner? ...At the time of the heist, the museum lacked a climate-control system, an oversight that exposed the art to corrosive fluctuations of temperature and humidity. There was no fundraising or membership strategy, not even a finance officer. The museum’s leaders rarely applied for grants (apparently asking for money was considered uncouth), and some of the staff stonewalled change. Even the café was failing. To foster improvements in that kind of atmosphere — well, good luck. Then along came a couple of thieves. (Williams, 1)

Whether or not the museum benefited from the theft, the laws about the thieves still apply.

Maybe all of [the fundraising and help to the museum] would have happened without the events of 20 years ago, but it’s more reasonable, and romantic, to think otherwise, to draw meaning from the fact that Isabella Gardner hung a signature coat of arms that features a phoenix, that mythical bird that rose from the ashes. It’s been suggested that as the Gardner becomes a museum for the next generation it install an exhibit dedicated to the heist. But to memorialize that ‘barbaric act,’ as Hawley once called it, would be opportunistic, sensationalistic — throwing dirt on the coffin. Better to let the empty frames hang, the calendar turn, and the schoolchildren make sense of mounted saints until the art finds its way home. (Williams, 2)

When it comes to the Gardner museum, there is not much more the FBI can do. Their hands are tied by time and the laws- that are there for good reason, but are a hindrance in cases like this. If the law should be changed to prevent this from happening again and future cases have more time to unfold and be closed with the culprits caught, it is up to the government to decide. As for Gardner’s art, time will tell if the priceless pieces are returned, but it looks as if no one will be sent to jail for stealing them.

Works Consulted

“Art Theft- jurisdiction/legislation.” The FBI Website. Web. 29 April 2013.

Palmer, A. Charles. “Recovering Stolen Art: Avoiding the Pitfalls.” Web. 29 April 2013. (Web Link Removed)

Yip, Arabella. “Stolen Art: Who Owns it Often Depends on Whose Law Applies.” Web. 29 April 2013.

Boser, Ulrich. “Learning from the Gardner Art Theft.” 21 March 2013. Web. 29 April 2013.

Kurkjian, Stephen. “Secrets behind the largest art theft in history.” 13 March 2005. Web. 29 April 2013.

Hayworth, E Andrea. “Stolen Artwork: deciding ownership is no pretty picture.” Essay. 29 April 2013.

Note: although I am using this as my non-web source here is a link to the whole essay. I could only find parts of it in print:

Doyle, Charles. “Statutes of Limitation in Federal Criminal Cases: an Overview.” Web Pamphlet. 29 April 2013.

Williams, Paige. “The Gardner Heist: 20 Years Later.” March 2010 Magazine. 29 April 2013.

Cratty, Carol and Jason Hanna. “FBI: We know who was behind massive 1990 Boston art theft.” 18 March 2013. Web. 29 April 2013.

Peters, Justin. “The FBI Knows Who Stole $500 Million Worth of Art from a Boston Museum. But the Culprits Probably Aren’t Going to Jail.” 19 March 2013. Blog. 29 April 2013.

Haley Bice
Haley Bice
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Haley Bice

Haley received her MA in Business Design and Arts Leadership from SCAD eLearning in 2018. She also has a BA in Art History with a Fine Art minor from SCSU and an ASc in Graphic Design from RCTC, both located in Minnesota.

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