The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

REMBRANDT VAN RIJN

1606 – 1669

Oil Painting, 1633

160 x 128 centimeters

Date of Theft: 18 March 1990

Publicly announced reward: $5 million

THE ARTIST

Rembrandt is often considered to be the greatest painter of Holland’s “Golden Age.” He is credited with producing 300-600 paintings, 400 etchings, and 2,000 drawings, but only 75 of these works have authenticated signatures. He painted and drew people and objects in their natural surroundings. Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee is his only painted seascape.

Rembrandt’s major works rarely come up for auction, and when they do they sell for enormous amounts of money.  His most expensive work, which sold at auction for over $33 million, was “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo”.  Other major paintings have sold at prices between $4.5 million and $29 million.  His etchings bring prices between $4 million and $200 thousand.

THE WORK

The author Michael Zell, in an outstanding book (“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): described the biblical scene as contrasting the power of nature against frailty of humanity. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves.

THE THEFT

On 18 March 1990, which happened to be St. Patrick’s 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 Witman talks about the last time any of the works were seen.