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Art & Architecture Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's infamous art theft shows us why collectors shouldn't control art in perpetuity

The empty frame, from which thieves cut Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee 25 years ago, remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Josh Reynolds/AP

When Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum sought to recognize the 25th anniversary of the infamous theft in which it lost art estimated to be worth $500-million (U.S.), it went online and created a virtual tour of the 13 missing works.

"There are a lot of photos of empty frames out there. Instead of empty frames, we wanted the art to be what people thought of," Kathy Sharpless, the museum's director of marketing and communications, told the Boston Globe on the eve of that anniversary last March.

Those empty frames, marking spots where several Rembrandts and a Vermeer once hung in an unchanging installation designed by Gardner herself in 1903, are the museum's blessing and curse. Blessing because they always keep the theft in the public eye, never letting anybody forget that the hunt for the art continues. Curse because they always keep the theft in the public eye, never letting the institution redefine itself.

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The empty frames send the message that the Gardner, and one hopes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will not rest until the art is returned.

After 25 years, the trail is not cold – in fact, it has been surprisingly warm recently. Just last week, the FBI released security-camera footage from the night before the theft showing what appeared to be a dry run as a man, driving a car resembling one spotted outside the museum the next night, approached and gained entrance at the rear door that would be used by the thieves. (They stole the subsequent night's footage at the time of the theft.) This week, a Boston lawyer came forward saying he represents an anonymous client who can identify the man in the video.

The FBI has been criticized by some experts for not trying to hunt for the lost art using crowd-sourcing techniques, assuming that the collection, which also includes five drawings by Edgar Degas and a painting by Édouard Manet, must be hidden somewhere.

In recent years, the investigators have focused on suspects with links to organized crime in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The crime has also produced a few fictional treatments and lots of journalistic sleuthing: The 2006 documentary Stolen speculated about the involvement of the Irish Republican Army; Master Thieves, a new book by investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian, probes the connections to Boston organized crime.

All this makes the Gardner famous as the site of the largest art heist in modern times. How could Isabella Gardner, as she collected European masterworks and built a Venetian palace in the Boston fens to hold them, ever have foreseen such notoriety?

Her stipulation that her museum remain as she had designed it, featuring a specific arrangement of paintings, drawings and sculptures in a setting of fine furniture and decorative art, ties the institution's hands.

The Gardner has gone to great lengths in recent years to remain vital and current: This summer, a giant inflatable psychedelic flower designed by artist Ken Smith is hanging from a big gold chain on the historic façade. The back of the building is a modern addition that opened in 2012 to protect the old structure and provide more room for visitor services. Still, the museum had to fight a long and hard campaign to get the addition, finally approved in 2009 when a Massachusetts court ruled that its sensible plan was consistent with Gardner's will.

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Gardner's collection remains powerful, but she was also one of those egotistical collectors who don't just leave a legacy but also try to ensure that they can keep managing it from the grave. The scar left by the missing art would be far less disfiguring to the whole institution if museum staff were able to fully curate the collection themselves, reorganizing and reconfiguring it according to changing tastes and ideas, rather than simply preserving Gardner's.

The Gardner theft is an intriguing crime story, but it is also the most dramatic example of why collectors should not attempt to control great art in perpetuity.

Philadelphia's Barnes Collection, which moved much of its art to a new downtown location in 2012, fought a series of controversial court battles to redefine itself as a public museum rather than as the idiosyncratic educational institution established by collector Albert Barnes in the 1920s in what had become a woefully inadequate building.

In Ontario, in the 1980s and 1990s, the McMichael Collection had to repeatedly fight its founders, Group of Seven collectors Robert and Signe McMichael, for the right to add contemporary art to the mix. And in Toronto, one wonders when the Art Gallery of Ontario will ever be allowed to provide more interpretive signage for the collection left to it by Ken Thomson before his death in 2006, let alone integrate that donation into its main collection.

What would Gardner have thought about the empty frames? Would she have wanted those painful memorials to the lost art to remain there, or would she have rearranged her museum's hanging of Dutch paintings? A subsequent generation cannot know and should make its own decisions.

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