Metro, Column

How The Isabella Gardner Art Heist Reveals the Difference Between an Answer and a Solution

Nothing makes life more exciting than a good mystery. And like any city, Boston has its fair share of them. There are the relatively insignificant everyday mysteries that arise after living near the city for long enough (What does that strange graffiti on the sidewalk mean? How long has this man been playing the trumpet in the Commons?) and then there are the larger mysteries that everyone knows about. After some point, these mysteries become like a kind of mythology, they define the city and illuminate aspects of the people that live there.

And one of Boston’s biggest mysteries is the Isabella Gardner Museum Heist, which took place 26 years ago when 13 works of art were stolen from the museum walls, including works by Degas and Rembrandt. This was the largest art theft in history, and neither the culprits, nor the paintings, have been found in the almost three decades since. Their empty frames still hang on the museum walls, acting as poignant reminders of the stolen art and confusing many casual visitors who are shocked to see the wallpaper through the intricate frame instead of another stunning work of art.

I’ve always thought there was something tragically romantic about seeing these empty frames on the wall. I could almost picture the lonely and aging thief who kept the masterpieces locked away. Perhaps they were in a basement vault where he could spend hours each day admiring the stolen beauties. Any day now, investigators would put together the pieces of the puzzle and uncover his name, eventually performing a stealthy raid for the paintings and following arrest. Or maybe, just maybe, on the thief’s deathbed, he would come forward and reveal his crime, allowing the art to finally return to its rightful home in a triumphant and glorious celebration of the ultimate good contained in each person. In my mind it was like something out of a movie, which meant that any moment there was a chance of a heartwarming and happy ending.

But then I stumbled across an article in Boston Magazine revealing that the security chief of the Isabella Gardner Museum has a solid theory regarding who stole the paintings. In fact, finding the thieves wasn’t even the problem anymore—it was more a problem of tracking down the actual paintings. Instead of being carefully kept in the thief’s basement as I imagined, it seems that the paintings were most likely sold through organized crime rings. The paintings could be anywhere in the world, and tracking down the specific people who stole the paintings in no way guarantees that the paintings will be found.

For some reason, this dose of reality, although obvious in retrospect, really annoys me. It’s not so much the loss of my romantic crime drama that gets on my nerves. It’s not even the fact that this outcome faces me with the harsh reality that people don’t always have a kernel of goodness deep within them. It’s more the fact that this momentous event—the largest art theft in history—functions exactly like the trivial moments in everyday life. People often know the technical answer to their problems, but somehow that doesn’t actually help solve the real issue.

It’s like daylight savings time. We all know the problem (that it exists) and the solution (abolish it entirely), but no one quite knows how to get there.  

I had never quite thought about this disconnect that exists between solving a problem and actually resolving it. I definitely never recognized it as a pattern in my own daily life. But once I considered the possibility, quite a few recent events flew through my memory. There are so many moments when I know exactly what I need to do, but for some reason, maybe laziness, or anxiety, or some strange hesitation that I can’t quite put my finger on, I can’t quite bring myself to actually do it.

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that knowing the answer doesn’t equal solving the problem.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

March 17, 2016