July 2012

Book Review: “Stealing Rembrandts” by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

"Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists" by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg (2011)

This past weekend I finished reading the fairly new book, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. I thought that this book was an interesting and engaging way to discuss art crime, since it specifically revolved around heists of Rembrandt paintings and etchings. I thought that the approach to the book was well-balanced, too. Amore and Mashberg included tidbits of information about Rembrandt’s biography within their discussion of different crimes, which helped to vary the writing and information presented in the book. Without occasional tangents into Rembrandt’s life and works, I think that the presentation of crime scenes would have become too monotonous for the reader.

I thought that I would present just a few of the fun things that I learned from this book.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III (commonly called the "Takeaway Rembrandt"), 1632. Image courtesy Wikipedia

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob de Gehyn III is the most frequently stolen painting in history.1 (I think that this definition of “stolen” might need some more precise definition, especially when you consider works of art that were displaced or looted during times of war.2) Nonetheless, it is impressive to consider that this painting was stolen four times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery: in 1966, 1973, 1981 and 1983. Eight paintings were stolen in the 1966 heist, including Rembrandt’s A Girl at a Window (1645, see detail HERE). (Side note: Dulwich has had a difficult time with art thieves! In December 2011, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was stolen from Dulwich Park, which is just a stone’s throw from the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

Gauguin, "Brooding Woman," 1891

One of the most amusing stories in Stealing Rembrandt revolves around the 1972 heist of the Worcester Art Museum. During this heist, several works of art were stolen, including Gauguin’s Brooding Woman. I was amused (and horrified) to read that Gauguin’s painting was placed on the car roof rack of the thieves’ getaway car; a man in the passenger seat stuck his right arm out of the window to hold the painting down during the escape!3 Gauguin’s subject doesn’t look too happy about her rough ride through the Worcester streets, does she?

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I also learned something interesting about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of March 18, 1990. During the heist, for reasons known only to the thieves, a Rembrandt painting was removed from the walls and then abandoned. When officials came to the museum after the robbery, they noticed that Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629) was sitting on the floor and leaning against a chest, with the back panel facing outward. Perhaps the oak panel was too heavy to carry, or perhaps the thieves forgot to carry it out. Either way, this painting was spared (although another Rembrandt painting, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, was stolen during the heist). Given that none of the stolen Gardner paintings have been recovered yet, I feel like Rembrandt’s portrait deserves some special Harry Potter-esque nickname, like “The Painting That Lived” or “The Painting That Was Spared.”

Titian, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," 1510

Stealing Rembrandts also discussed some very interesting recovery stories for works of art. Titian’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” was stolen in an art heist in 1995 (from the Marquess of Bath’s estate in Longlead, England). The painting was recovered – of all things – in a plastic shopping bag at a bus stop.

Rembrandt, "Prodigal Son," 1636. Dry-point etching

I also was personally interested to know that a Rembrandt etching was stolen from a home in Sammamish, Washington in 2007. (I chuckled when I noticed that Sammamish was described as a “tiny Northwest village” in the book. That’s not quite true!) Stealing Rembrandts discusses the crime and the arrest of the individuals who were trying to sell the etching. However, I learned this evening that the book fails to mention one thing: although the owner identified the recovered frame, the owner believes that the recovered etching may be a fake.

Hans Memling, "Last Judgment," 1467-1471. Image courtesy Wikipedia

And finally, although this isn’t a recent crime, I wanted to include one last tidbit that I learned in Stealing Rembrandts. I didn’t know beforehand that Hans Memling’s “Last Judgment” triptych was stolen by pirates in the late 15th century (shortly after the triptych was completed). The painting was being shipped from Bruges, Belgium to Florence’s Medici Chapel. However, ever since the theft, the triptych has been located in Gdansk, Poland.4

Has anyone else read Stealing Rembrandts yet? Any other art crime books that you would recommend for my summer reading?

1Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 67.

2 According to Noah Charney, the Ghent altarpiece claims the title of the most “coveted” work of art, having been involved in the highest number of thefts and crimes than any other work of art. To learn more about the Ghent altarpiece and crime, see Noah Charney’s book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.” Review and information are found HERE.

3 Amore and Mashberg, p. 43.

4 Ibid., 11.


Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty

Fréderic-Auguste Bartholdi, "Liberty Enlightening the World" (known as the "Statue of LIberty"), 1870-86. Hammered copper over wrought-iron pylon designed by Gustave Eiffel. Height from base to top of torch 112' (33.5 m). Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I have a quite a hoard of art history books in my possession. Out of all of my books, I only have one survey textbook which mentions the Statue of Liberty.1 None of my textbooks mention Mount Rushmore. Since these monuments have iconic status in American culture, I was surprised to realize yesterday that these monuments don’t really factor into the realm of art history (especially in the United States). Likewise, the sculptors Bartholdi and Borglum are hardly household names among Americans.

Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore, 1927-1941. Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

My husband and I discussed this topic yesterday, after seeing an image of Mount Rushmore on a television screen. We came up with a couple of theories as to why these monuments are not discussed in art history very much. I thought I’d jot them down here, and see what others think:

  • These sculptures are not studied in art history because they aren’t influential. (My husband put forward this idea. I have some issues with this theory, because the word “influence” can be defined in different ways. Perhaps nineteenth-century artists did not copy Bartholdi’s sculpture, but the Statue of Liberty factors into Pop art, as can be seen in the work of Andy Warhol and others.)
  • These sculptures are not the best representatives of the art which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result, textbooks and instructors opt to discuss other works of art.
  • These sculptures didn’t have international influence, which could account for their omission in broader, internationally-focused textbooks.
  • These works are relatively ignored by art historians because they are recognized (either consciously or subconsciously) as monuments instead of sculptures. Along these lines, perhaps the iconic status of these sculptures precludes these pieces as being examined as works of art.
  • Perhaps the location of these sculptures (i.e. in a harbor and on a mountainside) do not encourage the pieces to be appreciated for aesthetic reasons. Although I think that these sculptures are just as iconic as Michelangelo’s “David” (at least among Americans), these two sculptures are not displayed in an art museum.
  • Since the creation for each of these monuments is connected to socio-political history, these sculptures have been overlooked in the art historical discipline. (Could this perhaps be indicative of how the disciplines of history and art history do not always intersect?)

What do others think? Did you ever learn about the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore in an art history class? If so, what did you discuss? If you’re curious to learn more about these two American monuments, I have a few sites and images to recommend:

1 David G. Wilkins, Art Past Art Present 6th ed., (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2009). 432.


The Farnese Hercules and Renaissance “Substitutions”

Farnese Hercules (also known as the "Weary Hercules"), 3rd century CE. Roman copy by Glykon after the 4th century BC bronze original by Lysippos. Height approximately 10.4 feet (3.17 meters).

This past week my research meandered into Roman art and the Farnese Hercules. This Roman statue was excavated in various pieces from the Baths of Caracalla during the Renaissance period, in 1546. The legs, however, weren’t found during the early excavations. Before the original legs were discovered, the Renaissance sculptor Guglielmo della Porta provided other legs for the piece. And although the original legs were found not long after, della Porta’s legs were still kept with the statue until 1787, when the originals were finally put into place!

Apparently, Michelangelo advised that della Porta’s legs be retained with the original statue, in part to prove that modern sculptors could compare with those from antiquity.2 I think this is interesting, given that Michelangelo had already been involved in a longstanding debate with Bandinelli regarding the original composition of the Laocoön. Michelangelo obviously wanted to respect the original composition of classical statues, but it seems like he didn’t necessarily care if the original marble took part in the composition. Perhaps Michelangelo also wanted to promote Guglielmo della Porta, who was his protégé. Anyhow, Michelangelo obviously found that della Porta’s legs were acceptable, although some slight differences can be observed in the position of the feet (see below).

Jocob Bos, Farnese Hercules, 1562. Engraving. Michelangelo designed the niche in which the Farnese Hercules was placed.

After the original legs were finally reunited with the sculpture in 1787, Goethe recorded that he saw the Farnese Hercules in his Italian Journey (1786-1788, German: Italienische Reise). Goethe criticized della Porta’s “substitute” legs, and felt that the installation of the original legs made the sculpture “one of the most perfect works of antiquity.”3

Of course, the Farnese Hercules isn’t the only piece of classical art which was “restored” during the Renaissance period. Although it seems like della Porta’s legs functioned as an adequate substitute for many, I’ll admit that there are other Renaissance “restorations” which seem a bit awkward to me. Perhaps I’m just used to the missing limbs of the “Apollo Belvedere,” but I think that the Renaissance additions on this statue aren’t completely graceful, especially Apollo’s hands and fingers.

Left: Apollo Belvedere as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: The Apollo Belvedere as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf also has been removed.

Left: "Apollo Belvedere" (2nd century AD) as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: "Apollo Belvedere" as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf has been removed, but it appears that the Vatican currently displays a restored version of the statue that is similar to the Renaissance restoration. If anyone has information on when this most recent restoration took place, I would love to know!

When considering the post-WWII restoration of the “Apollo Belvedere” (in which the Renaissance additions were removed), Jas Elsner wrote that “whether the modern concern to return such marbles to their ‘authentic’ form constitutes an improvement is, and will remain, a moot point.”4 I’m up for discussion, and I’d like to see what people think about “improvements” and “authenticity.” Do you have any thoughts on the substitutions and “restorations” of Greco-Roman sculpture that took place during the Renaissance? Is it better to only leave original material on these works of art? Should we make conclusions about later “restorations” on a sculpture-to-sculpture basis, depending on the nature and quality of the addition/substitution? (And if so, does that mean that we value aesthetics and our opinion of quality more than original history?)

I feel like these are tough questions for me; I fluctuate between both camps. I am a sucker for original context and original works of art, but I do think that sometimes a substitution can help to recreate the original context in some form. If della Porta didn’t create substitute legs for the Farnese Hercules, the monumental height and overwhelming effect of that sculpture would have been lost (until, of course, the original legs were found). On the other hand, I also think it’s important to realize that the works of art have their own history, even beyond the period in which they were created. Sometimes I like having a visual reminder that specific works of art held importance during the Renaissance.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1981), 229.

2 Ibid. See also Jan Todd, “The History of Cardinal Farnese’s ‘Weary Hercules,” in Iron Game History (August 2005): 30. Todd citation can be read HERE.

3 Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (Penguin Classics, 1970), p. 346. Citation can be read HERE.

4 Jas Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 16.


Intentional Damage: The “Night Watch” and Temple of Artemis

I don’t like it when works of art get damaged (not by any means!), but I’m intrigued when such catastrophes occur. I’ve blogged about this topic before, discussing instances when Michelangelo’s Pietà and Malevich’s Suprematism (White on White Cross) were damaged by mentally-unstable individuals. (I’ve even decided to start an “intentional damage” label for these kinds of posts.)

I wanted to write about two works of art/architecture that have been intentionally damaged over time. The following two works of art may seem unrelated to most, but they are connected in my mind: I learned more about the damage done to these works during my recent trip to Europe. I had an extended layover in Amsterdam and got to visit the Rijksmuseum (where I saw Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) and finished my trip in Selçuk/Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis is located.

Rembrandt, "Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq" (The Night Watch), 1642

When visiting the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded that “The Night Watch” was greatly damaged in 1975, when a mentally-unstable school teacher, Wilhelmus de Rijk, slashed the painting with a bread knife. You can see some of the initial damage in the following YouTube clip. Don’t those slashes just pull at your heart strings?

Although the 1975 incident is the most famous example of damage to Rembrandt’s masterpiece, there are actually a few other times in which the “Night Watch” has been attacked. An unemployed shoemaker slashed the painting during World War I, to protest his inability to find employment. (Which is so ridiculous! Who would want to hire someone who just slashed a priceless painting?)1 In April 1990, it was reported that a jobless Dutchman sprayed an unknown chemical substance (later determined to be acid) on the painting, but luckily the damage was minimal. (Note: The Rijksmuseum’s site also mentions that the painting was sprayed with acid in 1985, but I think that this date is actually referring to the 1990 event.)

Detail of "Night Watch" text label from Rijksmuseum, showing the area where evidence of the 1975 damage is still seen on the painting

The other intentionally-damaged art that I recently learned about is the Temple of Artemis, near Ephesus. Before my trip, I already knew that this structure (which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) is now a ruin (see below).2 However, I didn’t realize that this structure was burned in 359 BC, by an allegedly mentally-unstable person named Herostratos (also spelled Herostratus) who hoped to make his mark on history.3 Interestingly, this fire was also said to occur on the same night that Alexander the Great was born. Although there isn’t a way to verify that the fire took place on this exact date of July 20th or 26th (beyond what is mentioned in historical writings), archaeologists have noted that the some ruins from the site bear traces of fire.4

Herostratos was executed for his crime, and the Ephesians also created a decree to ban the mention of the Herostratos’s name. Obviously, the ban was not followed, since the story has been recorded by historians like Theopompos of Chios.

Parts of the ruined temple later were used to help build the nearby Basilica of Saint John. So, I guess, in some ways you can go and see some of the Temple of Artemis when you are in Selçuk, although the materials have been reconfigured to help form a different religious structure!

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (modern Selçuk), Turkey (begun 8th century BC)

In November 2011, plans were announced to build a $150 million reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis. I didn’t hear anything about this reconstruction while I was in Turkey, which makes me wonder if the project received funding. If the temple does get rebuilt, though, we’ll need to make sure that arsonists stay away!

Want to read about more damaged art? Artdaily has compiled a good list. Do you know of more examples of intentionally-damaged art? Does anyone have a thought as to why mentally-unstable people would be drawn to damage art (as opposed to something else)?

1 In many respects, Rembrandt’s painting is actually “priceless.” Although the members of the civic guard paid Rembrandt 1,600 guilders back in the 17th century, there is no other price attached to this piece. The museum does not insure the painting (it is in loan from the city of Amsterdam), in accordance with Culture Ministry policy.

2 Several temples were built on this site over time. A few reconstruction of the temple are found HERE and HERE.

3 Albert Borowitz, Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome (Kent State University Press, 2005), 4 – 19. Citation can be viewed online HERE. This citation also follows the historiography of a allegation that Herostratos burned the Temple of Artemis on the same night that Alexander the Great was born.

4 Ibid., p. 5. Citation can be viewed online HERE.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.