What you need to know about Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Will (before listening to WBUR’s “Last Seen”)

300px-Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_GalileeWBUR’s new podcast series – Last Seen – provides a new look at the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist.  If you grew up in Boston or have lived here since the 90s, you’ve no doubt heard a lot about the St. Patrick’s eve theft of thirteen works of art – valued today at half a billion dollars – that remains unsolved.  But “Last Seen” provides investigative journalism way beyond what you’ve already heard.  I have been listening each Monday morning on the edge of my car seat, wishing my commute were longer.  It is truly that good.

If you have visited the Gardner Museum, you cannot help but be struck by the empty frames that remain on the walls where the stolen paintings used to hang.   The frames and spaces remain empty – like a crime scene – to remind visitors that the paintings remain at large.  Gardner museum director of security (and candidate for Secretary of State) Anthony Amore has committed his work and life to finding the stolen artwork, and wants the FBI and the community to have the same commitment.

But there is another reason the frames remain empty – the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s Will require it.   In her Will, Mrs. Gardner left the museum, her artwork, and an endowment to be held for public enjoyment, but the Will also included very stringent restrictions.  The museum was to remain unchanged from the time of her death, and any change would cause the museum and its artwork would pass to Harvard College.  The terms of the Will mean that artwork is not to be moved, with no exceptions.

There is however a precedent for change to the museum.  In the years after the heist, the Trustees believed the museum needed an update and expansion so the Trustees sought court approval for a restoration and expansion project – a deviation from the terms of the Will.  In 2009, a Massachusetts court approved the project, holding that the deviation was reasonable and consistent with Mrs. Gardner’s primary purpose.   The new wing, designed by Renzo Piano, is beautiful and modern, and totally different from the rest.

The museum Trustees have never sought to obtain court approval to deviate again from the Will’s terms to fill or cover up the spaces left by the thieves.  I suspect they never will.  To do so would be to give up on their quest to retrieve the artwork.

Image of Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, from Wikipedia.

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