On Wednesday, the last privately held Leonardo da Vinci sold at auction for over $450 million. With the bang of the auctioneer’s gavel, Salvatore Mundi didn’t just break a record, it smashed the previous winning bid of $300 million—shared by de Kooning and Gauguin—to bits.
While Leonardo da Vinci now holds the gold medal for most valuable at auction, there is another old master who bears its mirror distinction, one that is more tribulation than celebration.
Valued at over $200 million, Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert is the most expensive missing work of art, a (dis)honor that has earned it a prime spot on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list for art crimes.
The fate of The Concert diverged from that of Salvatore Mundi in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, when two thieves dressed as police officers conned their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art worth over $500 million.
After tying up the two security guards who fell for their fraud in the basement, the criminals beelined to three separate galleries—the Dutch Room, the Short Gallery, and the Blue Room—and cut Rembrandts, Degas drawings, a Manet, and, of course, the Vermeer from their frames.
They spent 81 minutes in the museum before loading their loot into a car and making their getaway at 2:45 a.m.
It was a superlative-filled crime, becoming both the biggest art heist in history (not to mention one of the most confounding) and garnering the thieves the aforementioned most expensive missing painting in the world.
The Vermeer might have been the most expensive work of art stolen that night, but curiously it was not the most valuable at the museum. The thieves knew what they wanted; they bypassed some of the priciest pieces in the collection to get to their hits, leading investigators to believe it was a made-for-hire job.
The loss was devastating. The Gardner Museum did not have its holdings insured for theft at the time. (The cost of insurance had skyrocketed and was estimated to be $3 million a year, which would have been more expensive than the museum’s entire $2.8 million annual operating budget.)
But beyond the monetary and artistic loss, The Concert was also a treasure of the collection for another reason; it was the first major work of art that Isabella Stewart Gardner, who would go on to become a celebrated patron of the arts and the founder of the museum, ever purchased.
Today, Vermeer is one of the most highly regarded painters in history, but during his day, he was relatively unknown. He painted The Concert between 1663 and 1666 and it sits almost exactly at the mid-point of his short career and his small oeuvre.
Vermeer would die in 1675 at the young age of 43, and only 35 paintings (in addition to two of which the attribution continues to be questioned) exist that are confirmed to be his.
The Concert is a classic example of a Vermeer. The 28.5-by-25.5-inch canvas depicts a sitting room with three figures situated in a triangle at center right. The woman on the left concentrates on playing her harpsichord, the woman on the right is poised to break out in song, and the man at the center has his back to the viewer while he plays the lute.
Light filters through an unseen window to give this hyper-realistic tableaux a glow while the rest of the room, filled with art and other musical instruments, is cast in shadow.
It is a typical domestic scene exploring the social life of the era, although one that has caused some debate among scholars.
Often, these scenes were used as morality cautionary tales, but many have contended that this may not have been Vermeer’s message given that, rather than flirting, the figures are single-mindedly focused on their tasks at hand.
“These three people are engaged in music making that is so profound that when you look at it you almost feel like you’re intruding,” Anne Hawley, former director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, once said.
Vermeer died penniless and, with his death, he melted away into obscurity, as did The Concert for over 100 years.
The first record that scholars have found of the painting is in 1780 when it was purchased for 315 florins by one A. Delfos, probably on behalf of Diederik van Leyden, Lord of Vlaadingen. It would go on to change hands several more times over the next century, with prices remaining fairly low.
In the mid-1800s, The Concert wound up in France, where appreciation for Vermeer was starting to build largely thanks to the renowned art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger.
Around 1860, Thoré-Bürger began collecting works by Vermeer (often getting them for a steal), and The Concert eventually came into his possession.
In December 1892, just over two decades after his death, a large sale was staged to liquidate his collection. It was here that Gardner snapped up The Concert for what amounted to about $6,000. It was her first major purchase of an old master painting.
Gardner was both an institution and a sensation in the stuffy world of high society Boston. A reporter in 1875 summed it up well when he wrote, “Mrs. Jack Gardner is one of the seven wonders of Boston. She is eccentric, and she has the courage of eccentricity. She is the leader where none dare follow… she imitates nobody; everything she does is novel and original.”
A New York heiress who married into one of Boston’s most prominent merchant families, Gardner once commented: “I had two fortunes—my own and Mr. Gardner’s. Mine was for buying pictures, jewels, bric a brac etc. etc. Mr. Gardner’s was for household expenses.”
She used her “fun” money well. Over the course of her life, she amassed a collection of over 15,000 paintings, sculptures, and other decorative objects that include some of the biggest names in art.
In 1898, Gardner began building a Venetian palace in Boston to house and display this legacy. The Vermeer took up residence in the Dutch Room in 1903, the year the museum opened, and it was displayed on the side of the gallery in an area by itself and at eye level to any patron who might sit in the ornate chair positioned directly in front of it.
Vermeer’s renown skyrocketed throughout the 19th century and he became a figure of fascination for many. His works became the subject of books and other forms of popular culture, both fiction and nonfiction. His legacy was embroiled in an infamous forgery scandal following World War II. And historians and hobbyists have continued to probe the mysteries of how he painted such precise and distinctive works.
But the biggest Vermeer fascination of all is the mystery of what happened to The Concert and its kidnapped colleagues.
The case remains open and the investigation active. In June, Anthony Amore, the director of security at the Gardner Museum, told Bloomberg that he still “works on the case every day,” and the FBI periodically releases new information.
Early this year, the museum raised the reward from $5 million to $10 million for information that leads to the recovery of the works unharmed. The offer is set to expire at the end of the year and is a pretty good deal given that the statute of limitations on the crime has expired.
The search for the culprits has taken the authorities deep into the Boston underworld of mobsters, petty thieves, and criminal groups. There have been tantalizingly promising tips that disappeared like smoke.
There have been searches, but no seizures. The characters who have drawn suspicion have included the infamous Boston mafia don Whitey Bulger, notorious art thief Myles J. Connor Jr., the mobster Robert “The Cook” Gentile, the Irish Republican Army, and even one of the security guards on duty that night.
In 2013, the FBI announced that they knew who was responsible for the crime, but they wouldn’t reveal any names or details; two years later, they said they believed the two men who carried out the theft were dead.
But despite their continued quest to discover whodunit, the location of the masterpieces has remained frustratingly out of the grasp of the investigators.
“For me, it’s not about getting people arrested,” Arthur Brand, a Dutch investigator helping with the case told Bloomberg. “We’re not talking about murders here. If a big criminal has them or the Pope, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get them back.”
Until that day comes—if it does—the Gardner Museum has continued to honor their missing works. The empty frames remain scattered throughout the three galleries exactly where they were hanging that night in 1990, serving as haunting reminders of the masterpieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt and Manet that once graced the villa’s walls.