greatest art theft

Guest Writer Sharon Lorenzo, U Penn Law School, Visiting Faculty in Art Law, reports on The Art Forger – a fictional version of the art theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.


Ms. Shapiro is an instructor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing. Her work is in close proximity to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which is the nexus of this fictional interpretation of the most important art theft in U.S. legal history which occurred at the museum on the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1990.  As a teacher of art law and cultural heritage policy, I believe I have read every published account of this incident. This work of fiction does not track the exact details of the heist, but it does engage the reader in some of the many issues surrounding this event. Many years of research have been spent on this case by art experts, press journalists, and legal investigative resources at both the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston and the FBI in Washington, D.C.

This engaging tale does add some frosting to this many layered cake by introducing a possible motive in this theft which was to remove a major group of 13 important works of art to be used as currency by the thieves. The pictures might have been a means to an end of garnering release of people under arrest or alternatively  used  as trade in the underworld of illegal drugs or the arms trade. Since the theft, a film documentary has been made and two other books have been published,  The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser and Artful Deception  by former U.S. Attorney, James McGovern.  The U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston remains on this case in addition to the complex prosecution of Whitey Bulger, another protagonist who is alleged to have known about the Gardner case and perhaps the identity of at least one of the operatives in the theft. Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI art investigative team worked on this case as well, and he alludes to some of the details in his recent book , Priceless, which suggests that more than once  he tried to  make a connection with underworld figures for details on  the stolen Gardner art works. Even he however has been tricked, and the works are still at large after all these years.

Ms. Shapiro also educates her reader on the intricacies of copying works of art which is a skill that has been perfected by forgers. She goes over every detail from cleaning canvases so that their warp and weft matches the century of the original to the secret sauces of rabbit glue and egg yoke used before modern days to bind the colors to the canvas.  Baked to perfection, the forged work is then covered with varnishes to create the look of old age, a technique perfected by Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen who often provided Isabella Gardner with some of her more spectacular works of art. Ms. Shapiro has embellished on the details of this case using the discovery of one work by Edgar Degas as the center piece of her story.  Even though that picture was not in the actual robbery, her tale weaves a story that shows us the breadth and depth of the artist in the market today struggling to get his or  her work into a gallery show or a museum collection.  With a smattering of sexual innuendo and complicated interpersonal relationships, Ms. Shapiro holds her reader spellbound until the end of her work.  I recommend this as a well written page turner for anyone interested in the details of art and law and their many intersections in our world today.


The Art Forger, $15.82.

The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, $10.19.

Artful Deception, $14.00.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, $10.20.


If you are in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum it is worth a visit to the ‘scene of the crime’.