Mead Works With FBI to Recover Stolen Painting
Issue   |   Wed, 03/05/2014 - 11:36

Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum is home to over 18,000 objects, from American and European paintings to Mexican ceramics, from Tibetan scroll paintings to West African sculpture. However, one of these objects has been missing for just over 39 years.

Now, the Mead is working with the FBI to recover a painting that was stolen on Feb. 8, 1975.

During a wintery snowstorm that night, thieves broke into the Mead, stealing three paintings dating back to the 18th century or earlier. After the Massachusetts State Police Barracks in Northampton received an anonymous tip, Amherst College Police headed to the scene of the crime.

“The night of event seems as if it came out of a movie,” said Elizabeth Barker, the Mead’s Director: footprints in the snow marked the path the thieves took after breaking the museum’s window and stealing three Dutch canvasses.

The stolen paintings included Hendrick (Cornelisz) van Vliet’s The Interior of the New Church, Delft, Pieter Lastman’s St. John the Baptist and Jan Baptist Lambrechts’s Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.

Fortunately, in January 1989, two of the three paintings were recovered in a scene that also seemed as though it could have come from Hollywood. While conducting an undercover drug sting in Illinois, police retrieved Van Vilet’s and Lastman’s paintings from Myles J. Connor, Jr.

Connor, notorious for stealing art, acknowledged in his 2009 best seller “The Art of the Heist”: Confessions of a Master Thief that he stole two of the three missing paintings from the Mead back in 1975.

The third missing piece had only been in Mead for a few years prior to its disappearance. The picture is on a 57 cm x 49.5 cm canvas, painted using oil.

Immediately following the theft, the Mead registered the lost artworks with the Art Dealers Association of America, an organization that notifies potential buyers of paintings’ problematic origins. With two of the three stolen pictures found, not much progress was made on identifying potential avenues for the third stolen artwork, Lambrechts’s Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.

However, Mead Head of Security Heath Cummings has investigated the museum’s files and archives to flesh out and hopefully uncover details about the night of the theft and its current whereabouts.

“Once the book ‘The Art of the Heist’ was written, it renewed my interest in the case and provided a few leads and filled in the story,” Cummings said.

Since then, evidence has started pouring in and filling in the missing gaps. Working since 2010, Cummings has finally developed enough information to reopen the case with the FBI.

The Mead is working with the Boston Division of the FBI and the FBI’s Art Crime Team in an effort to find Lambrechts’s painting.

With the case finally reopened, the missing painting has been listed in the National Stolen Art File.

“We are optimistic that it will be found, knowing that it is not uncommon that art is missing for decades before it is uncovered,” said Special Agent Greg Comcowich, the FBI’s media coordinator for its Boston office.

“The amount of media attention this has gotten is astounding,” Cummings said.

In fact, he said that someone might own the painting and not realize that the piece was not purchased legitimately.

“We hope that this story will eventually go worldwide and that somebody will recognize the painting and give us a tip on where it might have been at any given point in time,” Cummings said.

Since 1975, and more recently with the hiring of Cummings, the Mead’s first director of security, the Mead has been upgraded and renovated with state-of-the-art security systems.

“We are in a completely different world now,” Barker said. “The exact same crime could not be repeated.” From an alarm system and cameras to changing the lighting outside the building, the biggest contribution to the Mead’s security has been its frontline protection, its security force.

“The role of the Mead, is to help expand the imaginations of our visitors by giving them access to wonderful works of art,” Barker said.

The two pieces that were retrieved in 1989 in the undercover drug sting are currently exhibited in the Mead.
“We would be enormously grateful to have the opportunity to bring the painting back and to be able to share this painting with students and other visitors,” Barker said.