The Concert

JOHANNES VERMEER

1632 – 1675

Oil Painting, 1664

69 x 63 centimeters

Current Value: $200 million

Date of Theft: 18 March1990

Publicly announced reward: $5 million

THE ARTIST

Vermeer is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time. Because he worked slowly and with great care, he produced very few works. Today we know of only 36 paintings, but each exhibits an amazing mastery of color and light. His most important works were interior domestic scenes illustrating the daily life of Dutch women. There is often a sense that the viewer is secretly watching a private family scene.

THE WORK

In “The Concert,” three people are focused on playing a piece of music. The woman on the right is holding a copy of the score and raising her hand to beat time for the group.

Some historians believe that Dutch musical scenes like this are designed to be a warning against the danger of seduction. To stress the point, on the right side, Vermeer has placed a copy of a painting by Dirck van Baburen titled “The Procuress,” which was owned by Vermeer’s family.

The work illustrates Vermeer’s extraordinary talent in presenting the reflections of light, which is illustrated from left to right on the carpet, the table, the woman’s white skirt, the gold of the man’s sash, and finally the pearls on the woman on the fare right.

The highly respected art historian Alan Chong points out that “Isabella Stewart Gardner may have been drawn to the painting by its elegant depiction of the domestic music-making that she herself was so fond of. The painting was her first major acquisition, and she bought it without the help of experts. It was purchased at the Paris auction of the estate of Théophile Thoré (1807–1869), a prominent critic who wrote under the pseudonym William Bürger. He had been instrumental in reviving the reputation of Vermeer, which made this painting especially important.”

THE THEFT

It is unclear as to where the work was until 1780, however in 1892, it was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her museum. It was purchased for $5,000. It is presently valued at $200 million and considered to be the most expensive painting ever stolen.

On March 18, 1990, which happened to be St. Patricks day, two thieves dressed as Boston police officers gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  They tied up the two guards who had allowed them into the building, put them in the basement, and then proceeded to the second floor entering the Dutch room, where they took Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660), two Rembrandt paintings, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) and A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633), as well as a Rembrandt self-portrait etching; and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638). Also stolen from the second floor were five drawings by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas, a Chinese vase, or Ku, and a finial that once stood atop a flag from Napoleon’s Army. Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) was taken from the Blue Room on the first floor. The entire theft took 81 minutes.

There have been a number of theories about the robbery.  Because of the unique set of objects stolen, some think that this was a theft to order, and that the thieves were given a shopping list of items. Yet, because the theft was a violent one — most of the paintings were cut out of their frames — some think that the thieves either weren’t told to be careful with the works or they didn’t know what they were stealing.  Since the theft there have been dozens of tips as to where the paintings might be.  A few led to sightings, but none to recoveries.

The theft has been featured in television programs, books, a documentary titled Stolen, and an episode of American Greed. It was part of an episode of The Simpsons, where The Concert by Vermeer was found in the art collection of Mr. Burns.  There are books featuring the theft  – one by Ulrich Boser titled The Gardener Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft was published in 2010; another titled Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert Wittman talks about it.