The Biggest Art Heist…

Everyone loves the story of a daring art robbery with keystone cops, priceless paintings, a colorful cast of characters, a famous museum, an eccentric collector, and an unresolved ending–as mysterious as an M.C. Escher print.

In literature there are many examples of stories that deliver that mixture of art, crime and mystery – The Art Thief, The Raphael Affair, The Art Forger, and The Faustian Bargain. On the screen, it’s difficult to top Steve McQueen as the art collector and Faye Dunaway as the insurance investigator in Version I of The Thomas Crown Affair, or better yet Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the updated Version II. Check ‘em out. They’re still cliff hangers.

But, nothing beats the real deal… and perhaps the most surprising real deal heist took place on August 21, 1911, when three employees lifted a little-known painting off the wall of the Louvre, hid all night in a closet, and walked out the door in the morning with the painting hidden under a worker’s smock. Two years later, the ringleader tried to shop it to an art dealer who blew their cover, called the police, and returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre. Today, La Gioconda is widely regarded as the world’s most famous painting and its theft would land the thief in jail for life. In 1911, it was just a missing painting and the feckless Louvre employee went to jail for seven months.

There have been a number of famous art thefts in addition to the Mona Lisa, including the Ghent Altarpiece (several times), several Van Gogh, Picasso, and Gaugin paintings taken from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester later discovered in an abandoned lavatory (waggishly called The Loo-vre) and the highly publicized 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna from the Munch Museum in Oslo.

It’s difficult to handle stolen art. It can’t be sold on the open market and has to remain hidden from the public. Nevertheless, it’s a temptation that keeps criminals scheming and insurance companies raising rates. The one that has them all baffled took place in Boston in 1990 and to this day remains unsolved

The Heist, as it is commonly known, is the biggest art theft in history and took place on 18 March 1990 in the 81 minutes beginning at 1:24 a.m. when two men dressed as Boston police officers “responding to a disturbance” gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the two night guards, and systematically looted the museum.

It’s remarkable that the thieves have never been caught and none of the 13 works of art, including a Vermeer (below), two Rembrandts, a Manet, and five Degas drawings have never been found. In 1990 the value of the stolen art was pegged at $500,000,000. In today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation the figure is $977,494,052.34. Almost one billion dollars…

In January, the museum renewed its offer of a $10,000,000 reward for information leading to recovery of the art. In 2013 the FBI asserted that they knew the perps but that they were both dead. The statute of limitations ran out in 1995, and it remains a black hole mystery.

Despite its notoriety as the biggest property theft in US history and the fact that there is a full length documentary and book about it as well as an active FBI web page devoted to it, the museum’s staff is not allowed to discuss the heist with visitors except to note that empty frames on the walls of the museum stand in place to remind the visitor of the missing art that once hung there.

Here, M stands next to the frame that held Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape (shown as it was, on the right).

The heist might be the only thing people know about the Gardner, but it’s no more noteworthy than the museum itself. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an eccentric woman of the Gilded Age, part of the Boston circle that included John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. She traveled extensively in Europe, was widowed at 58, and for the remainder of her life devoted herself to building one of the great American art collections housed in the Venetian-style palazzo she designed and lived in on the Fens in Boston.

Mrs. Gardner’s home/museum is an eclectic mix of ancient artifacts, personal letters, Flemish tapestries, and Renaissance master’s paintings guided and curated by Bernard Berenson. When she died she instructed her heirs to maintain the collections as she had arranged them in the palazzo. The result is a delicious, crowded, poorly lit, treasure hunt, difficult to navigate but worth every minute. In 2012 a modern addition was added, not to house the art but to provide administrative, conservation, retail, and restaurant space. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

What could possibly have happened that night in 1990 at the Gardner? Where is the missing art? Twenty-eight years later there are many theories about who could have masterminded the robbery–from employees and police accessories, to Whitey Bulger, Mafia goons, Euro-thieves, a Vatican operative, IRA terrorists, greedy billionaires and oil rich Middle Eastern emirs.

Like the DB Cooper mystery, the Gardner heist has achieved mythic stature. The difference is that DB Cooper disappeared with a suitcase full of cash not 13 priceless one-of-a-kind art treasures. Consensus is that the thieves are dead, but like others I keep hoping the paintings will be recovered and back in their respective places on the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One can only hope.

Listen to the Music… Up Close and Personal

I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Steve Piper. I hadn’t either, but here’s the point; Steve is a journeyman singer-songwriter I heard last month while traveling in Western Massachusetts, and in this life, when you’ve been around for a while, you begin to appreciate how much talent there is – in your neighborhood, in your city, maybe even in your own family. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but it hard registered last month when I heard Steve play one night in Stockbridge.

That night, after a day meandering around the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, we decided to see if we could track down a good burger. There weren’t a lot of choices but the Lion’s Den in the basement of Stockbridge’s Red Lion Inn looked promising. There were a few other patrons, but it wasn’t crowded. We settled in, ordered burgers, a Pinot Grigio and a draft ale.

I’m not a good judge of age anymore. I tend to think anyone with gray hair and a few wrinkles is my age. Not true, but my tiny mind wants to believe it. Regardless, about 9 p.m. a guy “about my age” took the small stage, tuned his Martin, and did a short sound check while we were waiting for our burgers.

As noted above, there is an immense about of talent in the world, and when Steve Piper, the guy nobody’s ever heard of, opened his set with a 12-bar blues run and the first verse of Sweet Home Chicago I knew we were in its presence. I didn’t talk with him, so I don’t know if he makes his living as a musician or pounds nails on a local construction crew, but he was good and it was a treat to listen to him play and sing. We stayed for two sets as he covered John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, some Stevie Ray Vaughan, and one or two of his own songs. Good stuff… and live.

Steve’s talent was notable, but our visit to the Lion’s Den is an example of something else I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. The ordinary in-person experience of a performance, whether it’s music, theater, or gallery art, is worth more than a dozen videos of a great performance. I spend too much time in front of a computer and often see “Watch Live Now.” But, if it’s up close and personal, even across a room or stadium, it’s different. There’s a human connection with the artist communicating in his or her special way. I’ve known a few famous musicians, actors, and artists, and all of them speak through their particular medium. Some are eloquent off the stage, and some are so shy you can’t imagine how they overcome it in performance. In any case, it’s always better live.

All this is background to the reason we were in the Berkshires. After a week with friends in Rhode Island, our destination was Tanglewood the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a music venue like no other – a sprawling 210-acre park two hours west of Boston with a lovely lawn, a visitor’s center and several performance halls. This summer it’s celebrating the 100thanniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and featuring some of his work.

Throughout the day and during the evening music can be heard across the park at Tanglewood. Admission is generally free during the day, with ticketed performances in the evening. One of the secrets of Tanglewood is the dress rehearsal. These usually take place a day or two before the scheduled performance and the audience is treated to an inside look at how the conductor, performers, and music, are fine-tuned prior to an upcoming performance.

During our three days at Tanglewood, we saw and heard a dress rehearsal of La Bohemewith Susanna Phillips as Musetta and Kristine Opolais as Mimi, a piano recital with Paul Lewis playing a Mozart concerto, the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on the 100thanniversary of Lenny’s birth, and a minidress rehearsal with the flamboyantly glamorous Yuja Wang (below) playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1.

Tanglewood is unique in many respects; Because it is not in a metro area there isn’t any drop in traffic. It’s a destination experience. You know it’s there and you’re willing to drive for two hours and pay for overnight accommodations in order to see and hear world class musicians do their thing in an informal park setting. The performance halls at Tanglewood are indoor/outdoor spots surrounded by grassy lawns, and many of the audience members choose to picnic on the lawn rather than be seated in the Koussevitzky Shed, the largest of the venues, or the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall (below). We paid $34 to sit inside but tickets for the lawn are less.

Everyone loves summer, and it’s the perfect season to experience live action – music, theater, and art. There are outdoor art festivals, Shakespeare in parks, and concerts at wineries. There is no better time to Watch Live. Get out there and as Nike says, Do It.We loved our experience at Tanglewood and the evening with Steve Piper at the Lion’s Den.

Now we’re home in Seattle, and last weekend we went to see Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a one-woman show at ACT Theater written and performed by the title character. After the show there was an audience Q and A with the playwright/actress and her director. The play wasn’t perfect; most things aren’t, but the Q and A provided a personal encounter with an artist and a work in progress that gave us insights into the artistic process. I hope you can find a performance close to you that will give you the same experience. Remember… whether you buy a ticket or sit on the lawn it’s better to –


Chess Anyone?

The Great American Chess Match is underway – President Donald J. Trump vs. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. I’d like to believe the majority of Americans are as curious about this riveting duel as I am, but recent reporting tells us that most Americans are more concerned with how their two income households can make the rent, find or keep a good job, or help their children get to college than they are with Russian interference in the 2016 election or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

I’m not surprised but I find it alarming, because the Great American Chess Match may very well determine how American families will have to deal with their primary concerns in the future.

Chess is a game of strategy and tactics, and while Trump and Mueller are both cagey strategists their tactics are dramatically different. Trump distracts us from his end game (whatever that is) by turning over the board and scattering the pieces. Mueller quietly picks them up, resets the board, and methodically moves them as he closes in on the king.

America is in the midst of a dynamic reset with the pendulum swinging wildly between the structures the “founding fathers” carefully designed to protect the republic and the current global swerve toward populist driven autocratic governance. How else do we make sense of Charlottesville, the North Korean summit, the abusive treatment of traditional allies, Trump’s servile, bootlicking bromance with Putin in Helsinki, and his inconceivable decision to invite Putin to the White House for a state visit this fall?

For months I was in denial as Trump and his posse went about dismantling government institutions, ignoring traditions, repealing regulations and upsetting protocol. Look at what’s happened at the Department of Justice, State Department, Treasury, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, EPA, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Education, and most brutally by Homeland Security’s separation of migrant parents from their children.

I believed our system of checks and balances would counteract Trump’s one-man rule autocratic impulses and Republican leaders would see and react to the damage this ignorant, arrogant pretender was doing to their institutions and the lives of ordinary Americans.

I was wrong; tax cuts for the rich haven’t trickled down to wage earners, draconian border enforcement hasn’t kept asylum seekers from looking to America for a safe haven, racist xenophobic travel bans haven’t kept us safe from foreign intrusion, and cozying up to autocrats like Putin, Orban, Duterte, and Erdogan hasn’t enhanced our standing in the world order.

Protectionist tariffs are hurting American farmers and manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and Boeing. In March, 45 American trade associations representing some of the largest companies in the country warned in a letter to the White House that such tariffs would raise prices on consumer goods, kill jobs and drive down financial markets. But the beat goes on…

My childhood friend Bob Lucas (above), won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in macroeconomics predicting outcomes based on “rational expectations.” Like Bob, I’m a fan of rational expectations and I suppose it’s the reason I was in a state of denial for so long. Trump’s outrageous violations of normative behavior are crazy, vulgar, and undemocratic, and my “rational expectation” was that one of the traditional forces – the Senate, the House, the Department of Justice, or the Supreme Court would step in and end the carnage. It hasn’t happened.

Like many Americans I haven’t always supported the policies and decisions of those traditional forces but until the election of 2016 I believed that they and our presidents acted on the belief that what they were doing was best for the country and most Americans.

I was wrong. Rational expectations are out the window with this president and his spineless Republican Congress. I can’t wrap my head around it. I thought Congress would resist an assault on our democracy. I thought the American electorate would rebel too. I thought the rule of law would prevail. Not so. During his first year in office, his support hovered around a base of roughly 30%, but today his numbers are alarming. A recent poll shows that 88% of Republican voters approve of him and his actions. That’s not a majority of the population but it’s his base and it’s growing and coalescing in support of his policies. To me it’s scary to think he has that kind of support.

There is no way to explain the phenomenon in terms of rational expectations. We would normally expect Republicans to support limited government, free trade, individual liberty, lower taxes, balanced budgets, reduced deficits, and moral leadership. Strike those expectations. Trump has hijacked the party and today’s Republicans are redistributing wealth upward, increasing the national debt by more than a trillion dollars, imposing tariffs that restrict trade, and building useless walls while their president personally profits from his elected position and pays porn stars and Playboy models to keep them quiet about his depravity. What’s up with that?

Today, I’m pissed and we all should be. Even if you’re dyed in the wool “Live Free or Die” conservative you should be pissed. Donald Trump is an imposter who’s hijacked your government. Don’t let him get away with it. Find a righteous candidate who believes in democratic ideals and support the hell out of him or her.

When the Great American Chess Match is over I’m counting on Mr. Mueller to show us that the Emperor’s new clothes are the real Fake News and we can once again resume the test of the greatest political experiment in history… 240 years and counting. Today, our future is in the hands of a clear-eyed, clear-thinking, Princeton and Harvard educated ex-Marine bolstered by a free and independent press. Let’s hope the system is up to the test.

 Semper Fidelis

Who’s Going to Save America?

This is our coffee table last week just before we left for Boston. Messy, but it gives you an idea of how I’m coping with the present and thinking about the future.

It’s taken me 18 months to begin to come to terms with the election of 2016. I wasn’t a fan of Hillary’s, though I knew I could live with her policy decisions. She wasn’t the person I’d have chosen to lead the country but I voted for her because she was the safer choice and thought she would make reasonable decisions in the national interest until someone more visionary came along.

Instead, I got Donald Trump.

I’m not going to beat up on The Donald. Better writers are doing that and I’d only be piling on. Instead, I’m trying to make peace with a bad situation by staying informed and working for change. My take away from 2016 is that Trump has slapped us upside the head and created a come-to-Jesus moment in government.

The past year and a half has been real roller coaster ride. At times, I thought America was on its way down the rabbit hole with fragile democracies like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, countries who have allowed strong men and autocracy to creep in and take over. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries have fallen under the spell of bullies determined to limit democratic freedoms. Democracy is messy. One-man rule is simple and efficient. That’s why The Donald loves the “my way or the highway” approach, but as you can see from my coffee table I’m counting on his enemy – a free and independent press – to turn things around. Yes, it’s the Fourth Estate, the investigative journalists who dig for facts, the men and women who produce and publish what he fears and calls Fake News, who are going to save our bacon.

For 18 months I ranted, raved, raged, cried, and drank a little too much, but lately I’ve begun to see the Trump-era as that come-to-Jesus moment for America. It may take years to repair the damage this administration has caused but I have faith that investigative journalism is leading us back to a more centrist democratic platform.

Lately, we’ve been victimized by a rogues gallery of bad guys, bad girls and bad decisions including the gutting of environmental laws (EPA under Scott Pruitt), repeal of Dodd-Frank banking rules (Treasury under Steven Mnuchin), elimination of consumer fraud protections (Consumer Fraud Protection Bureau under Mick Mulvaney), scaling back wilderness and opening protected areas to oil and coal exploration (Interior under Ryan Zinke), turning college student education grants into loans that require payback (Education under Betsy DeVos), unqualified judges confirmed to the Federal judiciary and border ports of entry blocked for migrants seeking asylum (Justice under Jeff Sessions), and last but not least the cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrant children (Homeland Security under Kristjen Nielsen). But… those are repair jobs and we can make those repairs when we get a functional government. My faith is grounded in the public’s outrage and the diligence and perseverance of our free press.

I didn’t imagine that the Trump presidency would give rise to a Golden Age of journalism, but because our Founders knew the dangers of unscrupulous leaders and government by fiat they incorporated freedom of the press in the first of the ten amendments that make up our Bill of Rights.

241 years later, the free press is still alive and well. Journalists are prowling the halls of the Congress, the White House, Capitol Hill, and courtrooms across the country investigating and reporting on what our government is doing. They are providing a window on government. The thing about a free press is that every stripe and color of news is there to choose from. A free press allows us to weigh the evidence and make our own decisions about elected officials and the type of government we want.

We can choose conservatives, liberals, radicals, or fascists to lead us, but our choice is not dictated by the government. The election of Donald Trump happened because 49% of eligible voters failed to exercise their voting franchise. That’s criminal neglect. We have the right to choose but that doesn’t mean we can abdicate our responsibility. It is incumbent on each of us to investigate and interrogate the candidates. I think the Founders had that in mind when they gave us that freedom. To be good citizens we need to be discerning curious readers who evaluate sources and listen to all sides.

So… my coffee table is covered with the work of the Fourth Estate – the New York Times, Seattle Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Magazine, Poets and Writers, Seattle Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Jon Meacham’s biographies of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, James Comey’s  A Higher Loyalty, a history of tequila, and my friend Delia Cabe’s delightful The Storied Bars of New York.

There is such a thing as truth. In spite of proclamations to the contrary, we do not live in a post-truth society where “alternative” facts are as valid as those that can be proven. So, chase down the truth. Fill your coffee table with newspapers, books, magazines – and books on tequila. If you do, you’ll arrive at your own informed truth. It’s not always easy. Autocracy and dictatorship are “easy.” The government makes decisions for you. Democracy, led by a free press, is harder. You have to find the truth for yourself… and your country. Good luck.

This is a rose from a friend’s garden. Also in our living room. Enjoy!

Where Are Our Better Angels?

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Emma Lazarus’ words, engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, are a reminder that the United States is a land of immigrants. We shouldn’t need a reminder that our nation was founded by immigrants escaping political and religious persecution. Those immigrants, like the ones crossing our borders today, were looking for safety and opportunity. Our founding documents enunciate the principle that “all men are created equal.” So, how did we arrive at the cruel, sinister, and inhumane immigration policy known as “zero tolerance?”

On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced that, without exception, all persons illegally crossing the Southwest Border of the United States would be subject to criminal prosecution. The policy applies to ALL persons, including those seeking political asylum, and includes a provision that mandates the separation of parents and children. Adults are immediately jailed pending criminal prosecution and their children are removed and placed in detention pending assignment to foster care or “whatever.”

Attorney General Sessions explained that the separation policy is intended as a deterrant message to others planning to cross the border illegally.

On hearing the story, I was reminded of the plight of Romanian orphans under the murderous and abusive Communist regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. Of course, that situation was different from the one now facing America, but the effect on children separated from their parents is destined to be the same if it is not reversed. Children separated, isolated, and warehoused are destined to be damaged whether it’s Romania or America. Infants and toddlers suffer from sensory deprivation and older children have attachment and abandonment anxiety issues. Those Americans with a memory of what happened in Romania will recall how outraged we Americans were and how generous we were in arranging adoptions of these defenseless orphans.

“Zero tolerance” is so cruel, inhumane, and racist it’s hard to imagine it’s the official immigration policy of the American government. How would Attorney General Sessions react if his children or grandchildren were forcibly taken away from the family? What are Christian conservatives or conservative Christians thinking? Whatever happened to the Golden Rule? There is surely a humane way to deal with immigration, even illegal immigration, that does not involve separating families and imprisoning parents.

Two weeks ago, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), attempted to visit a child detention facility in Brownsville, TX to educate himself on the policy. Merkley’s staff had asked permission to visit the facility earlier in the week, but their request was unanswered. Border Patrol agents turned him away from the child detention center when he requested entry.

The senator’s best guess was that roughly 1000 children are being detained at the former Walmart store in Brownsville but he was denied entry and not given information regarding the detainees.

Yesterday (June 13), in an unusual instance of candor, the Department of Health and Human Services released a video of the the interior of the Brownsville facility while reporting that 1500 children being held at the euphemistically named Casa Padre. Nevertheless, Casa Padre is only one of 100 similar detention facilities scattered around the US. It is estimated that 11,200 children are being held in such facilities, although, to be clear, only a small portion of those are children recently taken from their parents at the border.

Locally, Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal visited a Bureau of Prisons facility near Sea-Tac airport where she met with 174 immigrant women being held there. Most were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence, or domestic abuse. Two days ago, overturning a precedent set during the Obama administration, Sessions announced that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence would not be considered for asylum. These are endangered human beings living in dangerous lawless countries. Where is our compassion?

Many of the women Jayapal spoke with had their children taken away when they asked for asylum. The first step in making a case for asylum is a “credible fear” hearing to determine if the applicant qualifies for asylum status. The hearing is to be held as soon as possible after apprehension, but several of the women had been in prison for over a month without such a hearing.

Of the 174 women Jayapal talked with, roughly 40% had children forcibly taken from them at the border and still knew nothing about their children’s whereabouts. It’s not clear how many of these children are in detention facilities or have been placed in foster care, but in 2017 the government acknowledged that they were unable to account for 1475 migrant children it had placed with sponsors.

I haven’t read it, but historian Jon Meacham has a new book called The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. As an admirer of Meacham’s it sounds uplifting, and I can use a little uplift these days. Maybe he can clarify how the soul of America condones and justifies OUR government taking children from parents. This is cruel, inhumane, un-American, and dead wrong. It brings back thoughts of Abu-Gharaib – another despicable American tragedy. Our better angels need to get to work. I have zero tolerance for the zero-tolerance policy.