The Great Art Heist of 1989

Here in the Boston area you can’t help but be captivated by the greatest art theft of all time—the Gardner Museum Heist. Twenty-six years ago thirteen masterpieces disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and we all wonder, who would do that, and why? These were the questions I was asking myself at age 17 when I found myself in the middle of the Mount Anthony Union High School Art Heist.

art class450Up until my senior year, all of my portrait work had been pencil or charcoal on white paper. When I was introduced to toned paper and white highlights a whole new world opened up. Faces were now three-dimensional. Then our teacher pulled out sets of colored pencils, and it was like finding your favorite hair style in high school, I stuck with those pencils for the next twenty-five years.

One of the first pieces I did in colored pencil came from piles of cut-up magazines in the art room. I found two images: Andie Macdowell in a L’Oreal ad, and the comedian Sandra Bernhard making an angry face, and decided to combine them. The end result surprised me and everyone else. Apparently I was obsessive when it came to detail and realism.


I was encouraged by my teacher to enter it into the annual Congressional Art Competition, where the winner from each state would be displayed in Congress. We took photos and submitted them to the committee and eventually it was announced that my piece would be a finalist for the state of Vermont. With the competition looming we started preparing the piece to be matted and framed, but before we got the chance, between 6th and 7th periods, the drawing disappeared.

Art classrooms can be chaotic places, or I should say creative places. They’re not always tidy because we’re too busy creating. Which is why no one was worried at first. There were four art classrooms and plenty of places it could be, and everyone was recruited to search. By the end of the school day it was clear. Someone had stolen my drawing.

UnknownNow the news spread throughout the school–there was an art thief roaming the halls, so the administration was called in, and the wider search began for the piece and the thief. The competition deadline amped up the pressure. Why was someone doing this to me?? Was it jealousy, or were they really going to hang it up on their wall and privately enjoy it. Isn’t that what art thieves do? In desperation, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Bennington Banner which was published on the day of the competition deadline, pleading for the return of the piece. That afternoon the drawing was found in a stairwell in the school, slightly creased (notice in the photo above there is a crease right through the middle), but otherwise unharmed. Has the Gardner Museum tried a letter to the editor?

So on I went to the competition where my piece, being a bit different from the rest, drew small crowds. Good sign, I thought. We were invited into an auditorium where the judges sat on the stage with two of our members of Congress, Senator Jim Jeffords and Representative Peter Smith. The awards for honorable mention were announced. My piece was not among them. Then first runner up, nope. Finally the grand prize winner that would be displayed in Congress was unveiled…a small painting of a red covered bridge in the snow. Very Vermont.

So all of that drama resulted in nothing. But the announcer wasn’t done. “Senator Jeffords and Representative Smith have a special award they would like to present. They have chosen a piece that has drawn a lot of attention for its originality and skill, and so the Congressmen’s Choice Award goes to…” and there it was, my drawing, being held by our members of Congress because it was their favorite. My parents turned to me and grinned. A male voice behind us whispered, “Is that yours? That’s my favorite too.” I turned around and thanked him. “I’m a mortician,“ he continued. I kept my smile plastered on my face so I could compute this latest information. “I just love how alive she looks. That’s what I do. Make people look alive. I especially liked the lips…”


[Featured artwork: Untitled, 1989. Colored pencil on paper]

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