Thursday, May 08, 2014
AMHERST — It was just over 39 years ago that the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College experienced what was likely its worst moment: Thieves broke in on a winter night and made off with three centuries-old paintings valued at more than $400,000.
Two of the paintings were recovered in 1989 following a federal sting operation in Illinois, in which a notorious art thief and bank robber from Massachusetts, Myles Connor Jr., was arrested. He had offered the two paintings as collateral in a drug deal set up by undercover FBI agents.
In a 2009 book, “The Art of the Heist,” in which he details his life of crime, Connor claims he stole both those paintings from the Mead.
But the third painting — a piece by Dutch artist Jan Baptist Lambrechts that is believed to date from the early 18th century — hasn’t been seen since vanishing from the museum Feb. 8, 1975. And Connor doesn’t mention it in his book.
Now museum officials, with the FBI, have reopened the investigation for the missing painting, titled “Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.” Though no new information has come to light about the work, museum staff said they have no reason to believe the Lambrechts is not still in decent condition, somewhere, and they hope that by publicly announcing the renewed search they’ll prompt some new leads, including tips from the public.
“I’ve been trying to do this since I came on here,” said Heath Cummings, the Mead’s head of security, who began working at the museum in 2006. “It was basically a matter of going back, looking at all the paperwork on the case, talking to people who had been involved in it, just slowly collecting data about it.”
Cummings examined museum files, college archives, and old newspaper accounts, and he also talked to various art experts and other law enforcement agents. Then he took the information to the FBI, which agreed to take a fresh look at the case, including assigning an agent in the bureau’s Springfield office to review past information on the missing painting to see if anything had been overlooked.
Special agent Greg Comcowich, media coordinator for the bureau’s Boston office, said the FBI is looking to generate additional publicity for the case beyond the Valley and Massachusetts.
“It’s not uncommon for art to resurface years or even decades after it’s been stolen,” Comcowich said. “It can follow some strange paths.”
He said the art can sometimes wind up with people who don’t realize the value of what they have.
“Anytime we get a request like this from the public, we want to do all we can to help out,” said special agent Geoff Kelly, who oversees art theft investigations for the Boston FBI office. “And today we have better resources for tracking stolen art than we did in 1975.”
He noted, for instance, that the bureau maintains a digital national file for looted art, on which the Lambrechts painting has been listed.
Elizabeth Barker, the Mead’s director, credited Cummings with doing all the “heavy lifting” on researching the case of the missing Lambrechts painting. The museum, she added, decided bringing the case forward again and seeking public input outweighed the embarrassment of reminding anyone that the paintings had been stolen in the first place, when museum security was not as tight as it is now.
“I think it’s important that we show we’re making a real good-faith effort to try and find this painting,” Barker said.
The theft was discovered in February 1975 after state police at the Northampton barracks got an anonymous tip. They contacted Amherst College police, who tracked footprints still visible in some fresh snow to a broken window at the Mead. Inside the museum, it quickly became evident that three Dutch canvasses — all of which the museum had obtained in the previous few years — had been stripped from their frames.
Aside from the Lambrechts painting, the missing art included “The Interior of the New Church, Delft” by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet (1611-1675) and “St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633).
Museum officials did what they could, registering the stolen works with the Art Dealers Association of America in case someone tried to sell them, and the college overhauled the Mead’s security system. In 1982, insurance allowed the museum to purchase a replacement painting, another work by van Vliet, “Interior of Nieuwe Kerk, Delft.”
But the trail of the missing art soon went cold — until 1989, when the van Vliet and Lastman paintings were recovered during Connor’s arrest in the FBI drug sting. Both paintings were in pretty good condition, Cummings said, and were back on display in the museum that year.
However, Connor, who once stole a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in broad daylight — then later used it as a bargaining chip for a reduced prison sentence — gave a new wrinkle to the Mead story in his 2009 book, in which he details his long list of crimes and prison sentences, including one for shooting a police officer.
In the book, co-written by crime novelist Jenny Siler, Connor claims he stole the van Vliet and Lastman paintings from the Mead on a whim after coming to the area with two partners to check out a South Hadley bank they were thinking of robbing. Connor, who enjoyed art and studied it in his spare time, stopped by the museum before heading to the bank.
Connor, now 71 and according to various news reports living in Blackstone, in Worcester County near the Rhode Island border, does not say specifically when he went to the Mead. But judging from the book’s timeline, his visit would appear to be in the mid 1970s, about the time the three paintings were stolen from the museum.
He writes that he didn’t care for the Mead’s atmosphere — “Small yet pretentious, with an overblown sense of itself” — but did appreciate its collection of Dutch oil paintings. Noticing one in the curator’s empty office, he stepped in for a quick look, only to have the curator reappear, irritated to find Connor there and dismissive of his inquiries about the painting, “immediately identifying me as someone of a lower caste.”
Feeling disrespected, and noticing there did not appear to be any alarm system connected to the window in his office, Connor resolved to come back that night with his partners to teach the curator a lesson. He claims the subsequent break-in, through the window of that same office, “wasn’t especially memorable” but personally very satisfying, “on par with the most daring heists of my career.”
Yet, among a number of items he claims he and his partners stole from the museum, Connor does not mention Lambrechts’ “Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.”
Asked if Connor had been questioned about that painting, or would be in the future, Geoff Kelly, the FBI agent, said he couldn’t comment on any specifics about the investigation but added, “Typically we will approach anyone who we believe may have knowledge about the case.”
It’s not clear what the Lambrechts painting might be worth today; Barker said that as a museum director, she’s ethically bound not to discuss the monetary value of artwork. But according to artnet.com, an online service provider for the international art market, other works by Lambrechts were sold in the past two decades for the equivalent of anywhere between $22,000 and $43,400.
People get disheartened sometimes with how long it can take to recover stolen art, Kelly said, “but they have to be patient — there can be a break in a case anytime.” He cited a 1978 case in which seven paintings worth millions of dollars were stolen from a private residence in Stockbridge — the largest residential theft in state history — and all the art was finally recovered by about 2010.
“There’s always hope,” said Kelly.
Anyone who may have information relating to the theft or location of the Lambrechts painting is asked to contact the FBI at 617-742-5533 or online at https://tips.fbi.gov.