The Gardner Museum Theft Campaign Borrows from the Whitey Playbook

Hopefully the publicity around the theft helps bring the art back to Boston.

In June 2012, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said federal officials were planning a renewed publicity campaign around the 1990 Gardner museum heist similar to the one officials say helped them catch Whitey Bulger. She followed up Monday with an announcement that not only will they launch a campaign, they think they’ve identified the thieves responsible for the largest art heist in history. That’s the kind of development interesting enough to practically publicize itself, and it’s especially exciting because in 23 years, the case hasn’t had much more than a string of leads that end up leading nowhere. Who needs billboards when you’ve fed the public a tidbit that’ll give us all cause to talk about a case that was already cinematic in its drama? (Of course, billboards don’t hurt.)

Back in June, the officials seemed to borrow from their own playbook that  helped the FBI catch Bulger (who’d been missing nearly as long as the art.) In 2011, the FBI spent $50,000 on publicity, including TV ads on daytime shows popular among women who might have encountered Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig. The FBI claims the tip that eventually led them to a Santa Monica apartment and Bulger himself came as a direct result of the blitz.

According to the Globe in June:

Officials are still finalizing plans for the public awareness campaign, but say it could go international and could, like the Bulger campaign, use billboards and television advertisements.

The campaign would reintroduce the public to the 13 stolen masterworks – including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet – and try to solicit information concerning their whereabouts, officials said. The stolen art has been valued at as high as $500 million, and the heist is considered the biggest museum theft in history.

Of course, for the Gardner museum, there’s good and bad in the publicity surrounding the theft.  It’s blessing if it helps them fill the empty frames they’ve kept on the walls since the theft. But until then, the museum has to balance interest in the theft with focus on the art. Volunteers have told visitors they’d “rather not focus on the 13 pieces we don’t have but on the 2,500 pieces we do.” Even so, reflecting on it 20 years after the heist, writer Paige Williams wondered in a Boston article whether the theft had been, in some way, the greatest thing to happen to the museum:
The theft put a harsh spotlight on the importance of museum security, of course, but it revealed other problems, too. At the time of the heist, [the] newly expanded board of trustees were already strategizing a renaissance; the crime forced them to confront an urgent need for deeper community outreach — not just concerts, but also lectures and school programs.
As Williams reports, the museum leveraged the public’s sudden interest in its welfare in the 1990s to provide a lot of that and to focus on fundraising in a way it’d been unwilling to in years past. All that means that if today’s news helps bring those 13 pieces back, the paintings will find that their home is, in some ways, much better off than it was when they left.