I stole—er, borrowed—this from my dad, who borrowed it from the library, because if you know me you know I can’t resist a heist story. Doesn’t matter if it’s movie, book, video game, whatever. Doesn’t matter if it’s a bank heist, an art heist, or even a golf heist. I just love the intricacy of the planning required for such major robberies. I like being walked through the timeline, the details, and seeing what might go wrong. Heists are like the opposite of a mystery novel, because you know the whole story going into it (and seem to be cheering for the bad guys, unless their heist is presented as somehow noble).
In Master Thieves, we don’t actually know who planned and carried off the heist that robbed the Isabella Gardner Museum of several precious works of art. Stephen Kurkjian has some theories formed from years of investigation as a reporter and interviews with experts on art, art theft, and Bostonian crime. But neither he nor the FBI has managed to recover the lost works.
I was not familiar with the Gardner heist, but Kurkjian gets us up to speed and then spends most of his time focusing on the fruitless FBI investigation and the various players in the Boston underworld who might have had a stake in robbing the museum. The way Kurkjian presents it, the FBI focused solely on chasing leads—some of which were dubious—whereas his theory has formed from pursuing the motive of the crime. Apparently art theft was a way of copping a deal with the authorities: cut short a prison sentence, and we’ll return this priceless work of art unharmed. Kind of like a less bloody ransom. So Kurkjian believes the Gardner job started as an attempt to get that type of deal for an imprisoned Boston mob honcho—but things went awry, and somewhere along the way the paintings vanished. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that anyone who knew their whereabouts is now dead.
For a journalist Kurkjian’s writing leaves something to be desired. Alternatively, perhaps it was just the book’s editing that suffered. Whatever the cause, Master Thieves has some discrepancies that detract from the smoothness of the experience. There are a few areas where it seems that the flow of paragraphs should have been rearranged—things alluded to as if we already knew about them, but then they are introduced in subsequent paragraphs. There is also some duplication across the chapters. Similarly, in later chapters Kurkjian will introduce someone who featured in an earlier chapter as if we had never seen them before. It’s almost as if each chapter was constructed in a self-contained fashion before being welded together into a book.
When I wasn’t busy pondering the structure and style of the book, though, the actual information that Kurkjian delivers is interesting. He lays out the relationships among different elements of the Boston underworld. He explains where he found his information, talks about the various interviews he had (or didn’t have), and also gives us a sense of how people’s attitudes changed over time. One thread that runs through the entire book is a sense of regret that the public doesn’t recognize this heist as being more serious than they do. Kurkjian agrees with the museum representatives and others who believe that this art represents an invaluable part of our heritage; he is enthusiastic about the potential for crowdsourcing to track down the missing paintings.
I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. While it’s true that there are many more serious issues we could spend our energy on, I don’t think that means art heists need to be a low priority. They’re part of our history. And the idea that access to such history might be irrevocably denied because pieces were stolen and then hidden away forever seems odious to me.
Kurkjian also places the theft in context. He explains how the museum had extremely poor security leading up to the theft—and how one thief’s observations to this effect might have inspired the theft, albeit years later. Following the theft, the Gardner and numerous other museums had a “wake up call” and finally found the money to renovate. That’s always what it comes down to, of course—money. Kurkjian chronicles the frustration the security directory at the Gardner experienced trying to draw money from the trustees; in parallel, he also points out that his criticism of the FBI investigation is not criticism of the agents but rather the bureaucracy and lack of funding hamstringing the entire case.
As someone who has worked at an art gallery that has only minimal security, I could really empathize with this part. Publicly-funded, non-profit institutions have a hard enough time getting money to keep the doors open; renovations and security equipment cost a lot, especially if you have to keep upgrading over the years. Yet what is that cost compared to the loss of important artwork? These are the sorts of equations that don’t often enough make their way into the chequebook.
Master Thieves shed light on a heist I hadn’t heard about. It has a fairly broad overview of the context of the theft and its investigation from someone very familiar with the story. Aside from the fact that we don’t know who did it—which the author, admittedly, can’t help—my only real complaint is about the book’s structure and writing. It’s competent, but it doesn’t quite create that romance that always seems to surround heists for me.