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“When a masterpiece goes missing, civilization loses a piece of its connection with the period in which it was created. When we abandon the search for such items, we are making a statement about our attitudes towards such matters — a statement that does not speak well of us as a people.” -Anthony Amore

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A Visual Footnote to the 1972 Worcester Art Museum Heist

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Painted in 1901, “Mother and Child by a Fountain” summarizes Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period in cool monochrome, loose brushwork and small scale. Although works from this early period are highly prized now, the artist had some trouble selling them at the time. This small painting, however, greatly enchanted Schofield Thayer, the eccentric publisher of The Dial literary magazine, and he became the third owner of the piece in 1923. Between 1919 and 1924, Thayer amassed a formidable collection of Modern Art, consisting of 450 masterworks by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Lachaise, Munch, Chagall and others. Eager to share the works with the public, he entrusted his collection to the Worcester Art Museum on a long-term loan, with the implied expectation that WAM would be gifted the collection upon his death. “Mother and Child by a Fountain” arrived at the Worcester Art Museum in 1931, and hung there undisturbed for four decades.
On May 17, 1972, under the direction of Florian “Al” Monday, two armed thieves entered the Worcester Art Museum during open hours and removed four valuable works from the walls of the European Galleries. Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew” was the primary goal of the heist, but two works by Gauguin, “Brooding Woman” and “Mademoiselle Manthey”, and Picasso’s “Mother and Child by a Fountain” were targeted as well. As the thieves made their haphazard escape, they shot a security guard near the front door when he hindered their exit. The four stolen works made a few unglamorous stops over the course of the next few weeks, including Al Monday’s drop-ceiling, the trunk of a car and a hayloft at a contaminated pig farm in Rhode Island. The tireless efforts of the FBI and Worcester Police, spurred by tips from informants, led to all four of the stolen works being returned to the Worcester Art Museum (read Anthony Amore’s book, “Stealing Rembrandts,” for further details), and “Mother and Child by a Fountain” was placed on view once again.
A decade later in 1982, in an ironic twist, “Mother and Child by a Fountain” was removed from the Worcester Art Museum yet again. This time, however, the loss was both permanent and legal. Unbeknownst to museum administration, Schofield Thayer had written WAM out of his will. When he died in 1982, it was dictated that his collection was to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Apparently, several decades earlier, Thayer had taken extreme offense to a disparaging comment made about his collection (it had been called “an intellectual sewer”). He simply amended his will, keeping his discontentment to himself. A subsequent legal battle was decided in the Met’s favor, and the Worcester Art Museum had to relinquish the Dial Collection. Sadly, because WAM had planned on inheriting all of those Modern works, they had built the rest of their collection around it. As a result, the loss of the Dial Collection left a large gap in their holdings of 20th Century Art.
Today, Picasso’s “Mother and Child by a Fountain” resides in a storage area at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, currently off view. —T.S.

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Travis Simpkins is a dedicated lover of art. He protects it at the Worcester Art Museum. He creates it in the form of an amazing portfolio of sketches ranging from portraiture to interpretations of important art objects.  And he preserves it via a weekly mailing of then-and-now photos of the WAM that accumulated quite a following and garnered him a great deal of publicity.

Now Travis joins me and Vicki Oliveri at Stolen Cavalier, contributing writings and images related to art theft.

Welcome, Travis!

Anthony

Prior to A Cavalier being stolen from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2007, other thefts of cultural property had occurred within the same precinct. Most notably, $1 million in historic and rare specimens stolen from the Australian Museum, which came to light in 2003. This case resulted in a review and upgrade of security at the Museum and a call from the presiding judge that other museums similarly should “maintain adequate systems to prevent such losses.” Unfortunately, this call appeared to go unheeded when in 2004 the theft of a small wooded carving, worth around $35 000, occurred at the Art Gallery of New South Wales- three years before Frans van Mieris’s masterpiece would go missing. Alarm bells did not go off in 2004 and they certainly did not go off in 2007, allowing the painting to be swiftly removed from the Gallery without a trace. It is, of course, still missing, and the police investigation has lain dormant since June 2008. The 2007 theft did, however, precipitate a major overhaul of security at the Gallery, but a headline I spied today disheartened me for it revealed that there are still significant lapses in the security of our cultural property and heritage:
“Rare coins worth almost $1million stolen from State Library of New South Wales”
Amongst the 12 coins stolen, the most significant piece is arguably the “holey dollar” which, according to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, is “an example of one of the first coins struck in Australia.” There are few of these coins available and to give you a sense of their worth, one sold in 2012 for $410 000. Pointing to the cultural and historical significance of this coin and, therefore, to why cultural heritage protection is paramount, Dr Alex Byrne, the State Librarian and the library’s chief executive, said this: “Historically the holey dollar is extraordinarily important. It’s about this country developing all the aspects of a civilised society.”
More than a coin collection was stolen – pieces of history were stolen. Similarly, when A Cavalier was stolen, a piece of history was also stolen. As a society, we were not able to physically hold on to A Cavalier and prevent its theft, but I had hoped we could have held on to the lessons its terrible loss had taught us. Yet, here we go again – another major cultural institution, another major theft… and all within the same precinct. –V.O.