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Transcript of Episode 7: Painting of Interest

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Have you ever gone into a museum and seen an empty space where a painting obviously once hung? Sometimes, there’s a little note next to where it should be: “This work is on loan,” it might say, or “This work is currently undergoing conservation.” But at the Gardner Museum in Boston, there are empty spaces on the wall for a much different reason. Nearly thirty years ago, the works that should be hanging there were stolen. One of these works was a painting called The Concert, by seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, who is also known for Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting, not the movie. Or the book. Vermeer’s existing body of work is fairly small, as artists go, with only 34 works definitively attributed to him.[1] Because of this, the loss of one of his works is much more keenly felt than it might be for someone more prolific. On top of that, its theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of the largest and best-known art heists in history. For art lovers, this one hurts. A lot.

I’m far from the first person to discuss the heist—in fact, before I began work on this episode, the Boston Globe announced it would be releasing its own podcast about the Gardner heist, entitled Last Seen, beginning September 17, 2018. But as I attempted to dig through recent scholarship on Vermeer, the absence of substantial discussions of The Concert in recent scholarly literature became increasingly apparent. I wondered why that should be—why did a work’s physical loss somehow negate all we could learn about it from reproductions and photographs? There’s a lot to discover about a stolen artwork beyond just the circumstances of its theft. What can we get out of an artwork that essentially no longer physically exists? How does the fact that it has been stolen affect how we read it? And what sort of impact does the absence of an artwork have in general? Better grab your magnifying glasses and thinking caps! We’re jumping on the true crime bandwagon, and while we may not solve the big mystery, we can at least discuss how art theft affects both the paintings stolen and the world from which they’ve been removed.

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A description of Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert, oil on canvas, circa 1663-1666.

In a gray-walled room with a black-and-white tiled floor, three people are gathered around a harpsichord in the right two-thirds of the image. A woman in a yellow jacket, with yellow bows in her hair, sits and plays the instrument, while another woman with a blue skirt stands next to the body of the harpsichord, a piece of paper in her left hand, her right hand raised, her mouth open as if singing. In between them, with his back to us, sits a man with long dark hair, a brown coat, and some kind of bandolier across his back. We can just see his left hand grasping the neck of a stringed instrument. We can also see a walking stick or sheathed sword hanging off the left side of his chair. The back of the chair he sits in is bright red. The harpsichord itself features a landscape painting on the inside of its lid, which is open and facing us. On the wall behind the harpsichord are two paintings: to the right, an image of three figures, difficult to make out, and to the left, another landscape. In the left foreground of the scene is a table covered haphazardly by a rug, with a stringed instrument and papers lying atop it. On the floor to the right of the table is a viol da gamba, an early form of the cello. The whole room is lit from one source at the left, a soft white light that casts gentle shadows and allows the floor in the foreground, the face of the harpsichord player, and many of the details of the furniture to remain in relative darkness.

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Not many people knew about Johannes Vermeer’s work in the decades after his 1675 death. He was rediscovered in the 19th century by journalist and art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger, and subsequently became permanently installed in the canon of capital-G Great Western Artists, despite the fact that very little is known about his life and a good chunk of the paintings that Thoré-Bürger originally attributed to him have subsequently been de-attributed.[2] We do know that Vermeer grew up in Amsterdam, and that his father was a weaver who later became an innkeeper and art dealer.[3] In 1653, Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, who was from a much wealthier, Catholic background in contrast to Vermeer’s own “lower middle-class” Protestant upbringing—he probably converted to Catholicism in order to marry her.[4] This was a period during which the distinction between Protestant and Catholic Christianity was a particularly big deal, especially in the Dutch Republic, where Protestantism had a firm hold, especially after the Dutch declared their independence from Spanish rule.[5] After his marriage, Vermeer and his wife lived in his mother-in-law’s house in Delft, where he produced the majority of his work.[6] At the time of Vermeer’s death in 1675, he and his wife had eleven surviving children, all of whom had been raised in that same house.[7] I don’t know about you, dear listener, but I can get annoyed living with one other person, to say nothing of eleven kids, a spouse, and a mother-in-law. And houses in Delft at the time were not necessarily roomy: many of them were row-houses on narrow but deep plots.[8] A number of scholars comment on the fact that, despite his living situation, Vermeer painted almost no children, and stuck primarily to scenes featuring one to three adults, often women. The solitude and quiet quality of Vermeer’s work is also a common point of discussion, especially in comparison to some of Vermeer’s contemporaries. In the 17th century Dutch Republic, so-called genre paintings, or paintings of everyday life, often featured multiple figures, a great amount of detail and allegory, and a strong narrative thread. They also often featured a moral message, displaying exemplary behavior or warning against bad behavior.[9] But Vermeer’s paintings minimized narrative, instead capturing isolated moments in time in a manner that’s been likened to photography, even though photography wasn’t invented until the 19th century.[10] Figuring out the methods Vermeer used to achieve this effect makes up a significant chunk of Vermeer scholarship. The Concert is definitely an example of some of these key markers of Vermeer’s artistic approach, and it’s no surprise that, prior to its theft, it was one of the jewels of the Gardner Museum’s collection.

But, if Vermeer was relatively unknown to the wider world until the nineteenth century, and there are only a small number of his paintings still in existence, how did the Gardner Museum acquire The Concert in the first place? According to a record of the provenance, or history of ownership, of The Concert, after its completion in the 1660s the painting passed between a number of Dutch owners until it went on sale in Paris in 1804. After that, it was again sold in London in 1835, and then again in 1860.[11] In 1869, it went back to Paris again, and—there are a number of question marks and qualifiers in the provenance here—it was “apparently” acquired by Thoré-Bürger himself, the very man who brought Vermeer into the art historical spotlight.[12] He held on to The Concert for around twenty years, but in 1892, it went up for auction again, and this time caught the eye of art lover and Boston society powerhouse Isabella Stewart Gardner. Journalist Ulrich Boser, in his book on the Gardner theft, elaborates on just how Gardner acquired the work while visiting Paris:

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“…Gardner was enthralled by the canvas and immediately decided to purchase the painting. She loved music, especially trios, and the luxurious setting looked like a room from her own Boston home…On that afternoon in 1892, Gardner and [her friend, painter Ralph] Curtis didn’t linger in front of the Vermeer. Gardner knew that she would be bidding on the work, and she told Curtis that if they stayed too long, they might arouse the suspicions of other buyers. Gardner went back to the auction house a few days later. She sat in the back of the room, not wanting anyone to know she was interested in the canvas. Her art dealer, M. Fernand Robert, would bid on her behalf… Robert followed her directions, placing bids as the price climbed past 25,000 francs, then 26,000, then 27,000, then 28,000. Any more takers?

Gardner stayed in the back of the room, her kerchief hovered over her mouth. Robert now bid 29,000, and the gavel went down. The painting belonged to the Boston heiress. Later, Gardner said that she learned that both the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London had tried to buy the painting and were displeased to find that they had been outmaneuvered by a private individual, an American woman no less. It made Gardner all the more proud. Vermeer was one of her first discoveries, and she had scored the painting just like the artist created his art—with a touch of mystery.”[13]

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Gardner placed The Concert in her Boston home, amid an ever-growing collection that she would eventually transform into a museum in her final years. When the museum opened in 1903, Gardner continued to live in the same building, occasionally “[prowling] the galleries” on visiting days and telling people off for touching things, which honestly sounds like an excellent way to spend one’s twilight years.[14] She died in 1924, expressly forbidding any changes to the museum in her will.[15]

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From 1903 to 1990, The Concert inhabited a room in the museum known as the Dutch Room, which still features a number of works by Northern European artists. The painting itself, only 28.5 by 25.5 inches, was displayed on an “easel-like” table near the windows. Gardner put a chair in front of it, to encourage visitors to sit and look at it—now, as in many other museums, even the chair is blocked off by a rope.[16] Now, we can only look at reproductions of The Concert and the other works that were stolen from the Gardner Museum. And the fact that we can only look at photographs, rather than the real thing, seems to have prompted many art historians to give up on looking at the painting altogether, or at least give up on publishing extensively about it. In researching these episodes, I try to rely on the most recent sources I can, to get the most up-to-date perspective possible. But since 1990, which is coincidentally my usual cutoff date for source searches, there’s been little academic publishing on The Concert, and almost no mention of the theft in connection to the painting, at least in academic art history articles. Granted, perhaps I overlooked a journal database search term, but it certainly seems as though the people most interested in writing about The Concert and its fellow stolen works are those who report on true crime. In captions for photographs of the work in academic texts and articles, it is still listed as part of the Gardner Museum’s collection, often with no qualifications. And in his book on the theft, Boser mentions repeatedly how the Gardner Museum and its employees are forbidden from discussing the theft in most circumstances. As an art lover, I understand that discussing the theft can be painful, but as a curious human being, I’m quite surprised by the apparent lack of discussion amongst art historians and museum professionals about how theft alters our perspective on art and the institutions that house it. It’s almost superstitious, as though talking about the theft, or the works that were stolen, will conjure the theft up again.

Despite this, I want to treat The Concert like I’d treat any other painting on this podcast, and talk a little bit about how we read the image. The criminal shadow that hangs over it is so at odds with the scene depicted—it’s just three people playing music, in Vermeer’s typically quiet, serene mode. Unlike some other Vermeer works, we can’t see the windows or the corners of the room, so there’s a sense these three people are in a very large space. They’re in this space apparently alone, even though this is titled The Concert, which generally refers to a public performance with an audience. This seems more like a rehearsal than anything, especially with the stringed instruments and papers piled on the table. And in typical Vermeer fashion, there isn’t really a narrative to clarify things. It’s just a moment in time. Even the traditional Northern European use of music as a visual signifier of love and seduction is not really in play here. That interpretation is simultaneously bolstered by the inclusion of the three-figure painting in the background—a work called The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen that depicts a brothel scene—and contradicted by the utter lack of flirtatiousness in the rest of the scene. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. suggests that the musical subject is “a symbol for harmony and…a salve for the soul,” but, as John M. Nash points out, this is troubled by the presence of the Baburen painting in the background, which is “quite unharmonious.”[17] Between the audience-less concert, The Procuress, and the lack of engagement amongst the three figures, there are a ton of contradictions and ambiguities to wrestle with here, which might prompt a viewer to instead follow the path of pure aesthetic contemplation, simply appreciating how Vermeer put this work together. Gardner’s idea of setting this painting up with a chair in front of it seems to have been exactly the right move, because it certainly calls for sustained, invested looking.

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Well, I’ve mentioned it enough, so I suppose it’s time to gather round and tell the tale of the Gardner heist. On March 18, 1990,  around 1 A.M., two men buzz at the side door of the Gardner Museum, claiming to be police responding to a disturbance in the museum’s courtyard.[18] One of the night guards lets them in, despite “orders never to let anyone into the museum.”[19] The quote-unquote “police officers” ask him to summon the other guard on duty, and he does so. Then they claim they have a default warrant out on him—in Massachusetts, a default warrant is issued “when a person does not appear for court or fails to pay a fine.”[20] The guard comes out from behind his desk, where the only panic button is located, and hands over his ID. The other guard enters, and both guards are promptly cuffed. The “officers” announce that this is a robbery, duct-tape the guards’ eyes and mouths, and secure their captives in separate rooms.[21]

In the Dutch Room, a motion detector alarm is set off at 1:48 AM. There, the thieves break the glass protecting Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and cut the canvas from the wooden stretcher. They do the same with Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black. When they come to The Concert, all they have to do is lift it from the stand atop the table. They also manage to steal two more Rembrandts, a Dutch landscape, a bronze Chinese beaker, five Degas sketches, a Manet, and the eagle finial from the top of a flagpole bearing a Napoleonic banner.[22] They check on their hostages, then destroy the security video cassettes and the printouts from the motion detectors. They load their spoils into a getaway vehicle, and by 2:45 AM, they’re gone.[23]

Because Gardner stipulated that nothing should change in her museum, the frames of the stolen paintings were replaced on the walls and left empty, creating a visible absence and a constant reminder of what was lost. The Concert, in particular, seems to have been a particularly affecting loss, at least according to Boser. He discusses how the insurance investigator who worked on the case, Harold Smith, had a print of The Concert hanging in his office.[24] Boser himself says it, quote, “might be the most expensive, the most rare, the most moving artwork ever stolen.”[25] End quote. Boser’s interview with the Gardner’s then-director Anne Hawley also heavily emphasizes the effect of The Concert’s loss:

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“For Hawley, the Vermeer was the biggest loss, and as she talked about the canvas, recalling the painting in her mind’s eye, her voice grew softer, her eyes widened. She imitated the singer arching her right hand, and for a brief moment, I felt like I was talking with Isabella Stewart Gardner herself… Hawley stopped and pursed her lips and blew out a deep breath. She thinks about the stolen paintings every day; the memory of the missing artworks still pains her. At a press conference a few days after the robbery, Hawley nearly broke down in tears as she spoke to the assembled reporters. ‘The theft was a violent act. It was a murder, a death,’ she told me. Still, she wanted to make sure that the robbery never overshadowed the museum itself…”[26]

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Art theft can be incredibly personal, and it certainly seems to have been for the staff and visitors to the Gardner. When people develop a relationship with a work of art, and that work of art is stolen, it can feel like a friend has gone missing. Because the Vermeer represented a confluence of some of the most significant things we value in art—thought-provoking, aesthetically beautiful, technically masterful, and a rare object—it’s no surprise that its loss seems to have been felt more keenly than other objects stolen from the Gardner.

So now that we know something of the circumstances of its theft, how does that affect how we look at The Concert? Certainly, its physical rarity and monetary value are highlighted, especially since, according to Boser, stolen art is not usually stolen because of its artistic value, but because of how much thieves can ransom it for, because it can be used as collateral, or sometimes because it can be traded as “underworld currency.”[27] The total value of the works stolen from the Gardner was 500 million dollars, and the museum offered a 5-million-dollar reward for information leading to their return, later doubled to $10 million in 2017.[28] The Concert itself is estimated to be worth $200-300 million—if it was used as collateral or traded, whatever it subsidized must have been considerable. The numbers attached to the painting transform it somehow from humble genre scene to incredible treasure. The revelation makes it hard to look at the little gray room and the musicians that inhabit it without seeing dollar signs.

But the big numbers don’t diminish the painting’s art historical value, whether in terms of its status as one of a rare few Vermeers, or its ambiguous subject matter, or its display of a unique composition and technique. There’s knowledge to be had there, and just because the painting is inaccessible doesn’t mean we can’t look at previous scholarship and data in order to glean more knowledge about its creator and its meaning. But its physical inaccessibility does make the scene feel even more closed-off than before. The group of musicians turned in towards each other, not acknowledging the viewer, is suddenly even further away from us, the room even more empty and isolated. We are no longer provided a chair to sit in and contemplate it. While it isn’t as remote from us as are artworks of which we have no images, it feels as though a door has been closed forever, and though we can look through the keyhole, we can never actually open it.

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Having heard this true crime story, some of you may still be asking why we should care about art theft. When a wealthy institution suddenly loses an asset, why should we care? They have other artworks, don’t they? They have endowments and plenty of money. It didn’t really belong to us, so does it really affect us? Art theft is different from the theft of, say, money, because even if an artwork is in a private collection and inaccessible to the public, we can still study photographs of it and learn from it. If it is stolen, that opportunity to gain knowledge diminishes significantly, because no new photographs or X-rays or close studies will ever be done. Theft from public institutions, like the Gardner, hurts even more than theft from private collectors, because those artworks were explicitly placed in those institutions for the public benefit. A stolen artwork cannot be seen by schoolchildren or scholars, by upper-class citizens or citizens from marginalized groups. Everyone ultimately loses when an artwork is stolen or destroyed, whether because the opportunity for leisure and aesthetic enjoyment is gone, or because the opportunity for knowledge and discovery is gone, or some combination of both. And it’s not just well-endowed institutions that get robbed or vandalized, either: Mediterranean archaeological sites are also often targeted by enterprising thieves wanting to grab something ancient and fence it. And theft can also take the form of vandalism and destruction: ISIL has destroyed a number of different Middle Eastern sites and monuments, and used their extreme interpretation of Islam to justify it.[29] Artworks acquired by colonizers from colonized cultures or cultures in conflict are also considered stolen: the theft of the Parthenon Marbles by Lord Elgin, and the British Museum’s refusal to return them, is one particularly prominent example. Earlier this year, Black Panther prompted discussions about the theft and appropriation of cultural artifacts with a scene in which Killmonger corrects the misattribution of Wakandan objects in a U.K. museum, and subsequently reclaims them in an act of righteously-motivated theft. The theft of art and cultural objects takes many forms and affects many different groups of people all around the world—the Gardner theft is just one piece of a much larger and more complex puzzle.

Healing the wounds caused by art theft and looting is difficult, but like with many problems, the more visible we make the issue, the more we can learn and do in order to fix it. Vermeer’s The Concert is not acknowledged as a stolen object in many of the scholarly sources on Vermeer’s work that I looked into for this episode. Acknowledging its status as stolen, however painful it may be, allows us to better understand the extent of what we can learn from it, even if we can’t necessarily see fine detail or know the chemical composition of its materials. We can consult it as an image of women’s activity in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, for example.We can consider how it frames musicianship and performance. We can even, in conjunction with other Vermeer works, use it to try to resolve questions of how, exactly, Vermeer composed his pictures. There is intellectual value in stolen, looted, and vandalized works, no matter how they were lost or how much of them remains.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to solve or stop art crimes, only to say that theft should not put an end to the study of works, even if we cannot view them in person. The looting and destruction of art by the Nazis did not stop the study of the sites and objects they targeted, or the study of artists they deemed “degenerate.” Theft should not prevent us from studying the missing Gardner works, nor the sites destroyed by ISIL, nor any of the countless other works that have been stolen or vandalized in the thousands of years that make up human history. But it does help a lot if we can recover missing works. So I wanted to provide you, dear listener, with some resources for reporting art theft and learning about artworks that have been stolen. Clickable links will be available in this episode’s transcript.

If you have information about the works stolen from the Gardner, you’re encouraged to contact the museum directly, either by e-mailing theft@gardnermuseum.org, or calling the Gardner’s Director of Security at 617-278-5114. The FBI’s National Stolen Art File is a searchable database of stolen artworks from all over the world, allowing anyone to check on the status of an artwork that has been reported stolen.[30] If you have information regarding a work in the National Stolen Art File, you can report it to www.fbi.gov/tips or call your local FBI office. If you’d like to learn more about how to get into art crime investigation as a career, you can look into the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, at www.artcrimeresearch.org. ARCA also has post-graduate programs for studying art crime, and has a specific scholarship to study heritage destruction and looting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

Vermeer’s Concert may or may not ever hang above its little table in the Gardner ever again, but its  frame is empty, ready, and waiting. We have photographs, too, not just to remember it by, but to keep it alive in the art historical memory by actively using those photographs in scholarship and articles. An image of a painting may not be the same as the real thing, but it has knowledge to impart nonetheless, and there’s definitely more to explore in Vermeer’s The Concert.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, including links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Subscribe to the feed on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, and don’t be afraid to rate and review the podcast, or to tell your friends about it! Follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all—that’s art history, number 4, all—for updates about the show and other fun art stuff. If you’ve already done all that, and just want to give a little extra love, please consider leaving a tip on the podcast’s   Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall.

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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[1] Wikipedia contributors, “List of Paintings by Johannes Vermeer,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 August 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Johannes_Vermeer

[2] Christiane Hertel, Vermeer: Reception & Interpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 1.

[3] Walter Liedtke, “Genre Painting in Delft after 1650: De Hooch and Vermeer,” in Vermeer and the Delft School, ed. Walter Liedtke, Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001): 146-147.

[4] Liedtke, “Genre Painting…”, 147.

[5] Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., “The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer,” in The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Osaka Municipal Museum of Art exh. cat. (Wappingers Falls: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2000): 13-14.

[6] Liedtke, “Genre Painting…”, 149.

[7] Liedtke, “Genre Painting…”, 149.

[8] Marjorie E. Wieseman, “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence,” in Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence, ed. Marjorie E. Wieseman, Fitzwilliam Museum exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011): 21-24.

[9] Wheelock, 19.

[10] There’s quite a lot of discussion about how Vermeer composed and rendered his paintings so realistically. For an interesting take on this, I recommend the 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer, which argues against the long-held theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura and instead posits he used a system of mirrors.

[11] Jonathan Janson, “Johannes Vermeer: Provenances,” Essential Vermeer 2.0, accessed 21 August 2018. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/references/provenance.html#.W3yV3pNKhE4

[12] Janson, “Provenances.”

[13] Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft (New York: Harper Collins, 2009): 48-49.

[14] Boser, 54.

[15] Boser, 2-3.

[16] Boser, 54-56.

[17] Wheelock and Nash, from catalogue entries quoted in Janson, “Critical Assessment: The Concert,” Essential Vermeer 2.0, accessed 22 August 2018. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/concert.html#.W33kqJNKhE5

[18] Boser, 2-3.

[19] Boser, 4.

[20] “Massachusetts Warrant Attorney,” The Law Offices of Patrick T. Donovan, accessed 23 August, 2018. https://www.pdonovanlaw.com/massachusetts-warrants/

[21] Boser, 4-5.

[22] Boser, 6-8.

[23] Boser, 9.

[24] Boser, 29.

[25] Boser, 37.

[26] Boser, 61.

[27] Boser, 70.

[28] Wikipedia contributors, “Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 24 August 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_Museum_theft

[29] Wikipedia contributors, “Destruction of cultural heritage by ISIL,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 24 August 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_of_cultural_heritage_by_ISIL

[30] https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/violent-crime/art-theft/national-stolen-art-file/

 

Additional Music Credits:

“Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No. 1 – III. Menuetto Allegretto” by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Daniel Veesey (via freemusicarchive.org). Licensed under a Public Domain License.

“Lucid Awakening” by Parvus Decree (via freemusicarchive.org). Licensed under a CC0 1.0 Universal License.

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