Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 11 December 2016

What lies beneath: Chez Tortoni

Oil on canvas, whereabouts unknown, by Edouard Manet

Niall MacMonagle

Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30

Chez Tortini by Edouard Manet
Chez Tortini by Edouard Manet

HAVE you seen this man? If so, call the Gardai. Ever since 18 March 1990, this man has been missing. Find him and others, who also went AWOL, and claim your $5 million reward.

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In the early hours of the morning, two men dressed in police uniforms entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and got away with the largest property crime in US history. A post St Patrick's Day, meticulously planned heist when Boston was a little hungover and quieter than usual.

They entered the museum at 1.24 am, tied up the security guards, duct taped their mouths and handcuffed them to pipes in the basement. They then cut priceless canvases from their gilt frames and disappeared.

The whole operation lasted eighty-one minutes. And what a disappearing act.

Perhaps they now privately, very privately, enjoy these masterpieces? Or maybe they sold them on to some crazy, fabulously wealthy individual who commissioned the theft? For all anyone knows, they could be hanging on a wall in Chicago or Castlebar? Are they locked in a vault? Will they ever again see the light of day? Who knows? Who knows?

Isabella Stewart Gardner's unique collection was housed in a specially built "Venetian" Palace. She had travelled the US, Europe, Asia in search of treasures and owned a Titian, Botticelli, Raphael and a Velazquez.

Isabella herself was painted by John Singer Sargent. In one swoop several Degas works, a Rembrandt, a Vermeer and this Manet were stolen.

Manet painted this now missing, unnamed gentleman in top hat and frock coat in a Parisienne cafe. His pitch black get-up is backlit from the left with energetic brush strokes. Interrupted, he looks up from his writing and gazes intently at the viewer. Who is gazing at him now?

A rare bird, by all accounts, Mrs Stewart Gardner had the Boston Symphony play at her Museum opening; champagne and doughnuts were served.

She once attended a prim and proper orchestral concert wearing an "Oh, You Red Sox" headband and every year on her birthday, 14 April, a Requiem Mass is said for her in the Museum chapel.

It's not often that the FBI feature art on their website but click to discover several Degas, a Rembrandt, a Vermeer and this Manet. This theft has flummoxed them. They're on the case? Yeah. Right.

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