Frame of reference

by Laura Sim | 1/26/14 6:33pm

In the wee hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers executed the largest art heist in history. In total, the men made off with works by Degas, Manet, Rembrandt and Vermeer, tearing paintings off the walls or slicing canvases from their frames.

Today, empty frames mark the place of these priceless works, still missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Although the statute of limitation for the theft has expired, the works have never been returned.

Art theft is exciting — or so Hollywood wants us to think. Upcoming movie releases include “The Monuments Men” (2014), which tells the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, a World War II Allies initiative to save pieces of art and other culturally significant items from destruction during the war. Art theft was the subject of director Danny Boyle’s “Trance” (2013) and made a small appearance in director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (2013).

However, depictions in popular media cloak the true scope and tragedy of organized theft. Historians have speculated that 5 to 10 percent of stolen art materials are ever recovered, and returned works are often damaged when kept in thieves’ hands. This does not even begin to count works looted during wartime.

There seems to be a disconnect between the way that we find art theft exciting, and how it affects us as museumgoers. When art is stolen, it infringes on the very mission of such institutions: to provide a cultural space for the public to enjoy art, at little or no cost. Yes, photographs of art can circulate freely and in real time on the Internet, but this does not replace the experience of viewing such works in person. The texture in Degas’ brush strokes, the playfulness of Manet’s bright pigments or the provocative shadow play in Vermeer’s dark swatches can only partially be communicated through photographs of these paintings.

In an era of increasing reliance on copies of copies, the cultural value of such works may be even greater now than in previous times.

Such a disconnect exists at Dartmouth, too. In 1989, members of Sphinx senior society admitted to stealing approximately $12,000 worth of College artwork during a scavenger hunt, including an oil painting titled “Pawnee” valued at $10,000. Although quickly recovered, the painting was scratched. While not nearly as sensational, a painting disappeared from Collis this fall as well.

In Greek house basements, there are often local road signs and College paraphernalia. Perhaps only a fraction of these items are stolen, but students’ desire to lay claim to objects not their own — what the rest of the world would call stealing — is troubling. Especially during pledge terms or as secret society recruitment begins this week, it is important to think about appreciating art in public spaces and the dangers of trying to claim it for private use.