Sarah Burton

Art for ransom

These two books make mutually illuminating and surprisingly contrasting companions, given the similarity of their subjects.

These two books make mutually illuminating and surprisingly contrasting companions, given the similarity of their subjects. Both are written by those with hands-on experience in the field of art preservation and security. Sandy Nairne was Director of Programmes at the Tate Gallery in 1994 when two important paintings by J.M.W. Turner were stolen while on loan to an exhibition in Frankfurt, and was a key player in their eventual recovery. When Anthony Amore became Security Director at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 2005, he immediately picked up the threads of the investigation into the theft of three Rembrandts and other works which had been stolen from the museum 15 years previously. Despite energetically re-evaluating existing information and gathering new data, the case remains unresolved and the paintings are still missing.

Amore has enlisted Tom Mashberg, an investigative journalist intimate with the details of the Rembrandt heist, as co-author, and this inevitably makes for a racier read than Nairne’s stolid account of the Turner story. Whereas Nairne gives an account in forensic detail of every step of the Tate enquiry, Amore and Mashberg dive into the archives to reassess several other high-profile thefts of Rembrandts, and what can be learned from them which might usefully be applied to investigating the Boston heist.

Where Nairne quotes extensively from interviews, published accounts and personal memos by those investigating art theft, Amore and Mashberg interview (presumably ‘retired’) art thieves themselves. Amore and Mashberg also intersperse their account of Rembrandt thefts with an appreciation of the artist’s life, noting that criminals and underclass figures feature in his work — but to what end, other than ironic, is unclear. Nairne’s book pays much less attention to the artist himself and is divided pretty evenly between an account of the Turner/Tate enquiry and recovery and a meditation on the process of ascribing value to prominent artworks and the ethics involved in their recovery.

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