Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Paul Gauguin's “Portrait of Mademoiselle Manthey”: Stolen and Stored Away

Mademoiselle Manthey. Paul Gauguin. Worcester Art Museum. by Travis Simpkins

Paul Gauguin's “Portrait of Mademoiselle Manthey”: Stolen and Stored Away
A Visual Footnote to the 1972 Worcester Art Museum Heist
by Travis Simpkins

     Paul Gauguin's 1884 pastel Portrait of Mademoiselle Manthey has long-held a certain mystique in my eyes. I have worked at the Worcester Art Museum for 16 years, and I've only seen it twice. Like most delicate works on paper, Mademoiselle Manthey rests in storage limbo, seldom presenting herself to public view. There is nothing truly enigmatic about the subject herself: the pretty young daughter of the consul representing Norway and Sweden in Rouen and Le Havre during the 1880's, whose family owned several works by Gauguin. The visual spell cast by the Portrait of Mademoiselle Manthey is contained within it's composition and feel; simple and harmonious. Gauguin's straightforward view catches the young lady's glance in an unguarded moment of daydreaming. The short strokes and vertical hatchings of pure color add depth and implications of texture, and the diagonal breaks of the sloping shoulders and hat brim serve to enliven the picture plane. It is a quiet and elegant masterpiece. However, when Mademoiselle Manthey was targeted by thieves four decades ago, these lovely aesthetic elements received no consideration when calculating it's worth.
     The Worcester Art Museum Heist on May 17, 1972 bore no resemblance to the daring robberies presented in Hollywood films. The stolen art was not hand-picked by an art-loving wealthy connoisseur, the aesthetics and beauty of the paintings meant nothing to those taking them, the pieces were not destined for a luxurious villa, there was no stealthy night-time repel through laser beams, the thieves were not sophisticated or clever and their plan did not play out in seamless fashion.
     When Florian “Al” Monday, a petty crook and self-styled art enthusiast, selected the four works he planned to steal from the Worcester Art Museum, money was his sole motive. Disregarding his own personal taste (he has a passion for Renoir), Monday selected pieces from the collection that he thought were the most valuable: Rembrandt's Saint Bartholomew, Gauguin's Brooding Woman and Mademoiselle Manthey and Picasso's Mother and Child by a Fountain. He figured that even with a black market value of 10%, he still stood to profit a great deal from selling the filched paintings. The heist was planned for the middle of the day, during open hours. More than half of documented art thefts are committed when museums are open, for the simple fact that the building perimeter has already been breached. Monday's plan was further aided by proximity and convenience, in that all four works were located just one level up from the front door and that the latter two works were small and portable.
     On the afternoon of May 17, 1972, Al Monday sent two dim-witted young thieves, in their early 20's, into the Worcester Art Museum with a revolver (loaded with a single bullet). The thieves wore matching blue jackets, with the supposition that they'd appear to be employees when removing the works from the walls. After flirting with two high school girls in the galleries, the young thugs easily bagged the four masterpieces and sauntered towards the exit. When an elderly security guard tried to stop them, they drew their weapon and shot him. Critically wounded, the guard survived thanks to first aid provided by a visitor. The four paintings were driven away in a waiting station wagon (with Gauguin's Brooding Woman ignorantly and precariously placed on the roof rack of the car).
     In reality, even if the plan had worked perfectly and no one had been hurt, Monday never stood a chance of selling the well-known stolen paintings. However, with the added charge of shooting the guard, the crime was elevated to a whole new level of scrutiny. Knowing the authorities would be focusing on him, Monday hid the four paintings in his drop-ceiling at first. Figuring that wasn't the best place to conceal them, he then placed the paintings in a steamer trunk and brought them to a hayloft at the contaminated Picillo Pig Farm in Rhode Island. Along the way, because he felt it was weighing him down, he removed the frame from the Rembrandt and tossed it in the Blackstone River. In the end, two other criminals, seeking reductions in pending sentences, strong-armed and forced Monday into giving up the stolen WAM pieces so that they might gain favor with the court. (Please read Anthony Amore's book, “Stealing Rembrandts,” for a full, well-documented account of the 1972 WAM Heist events).
      The four masterpieces were returned to the Worcester Art Museum a few weeks after they were stolen. Ten years later, Picasso's Mother and Child by a Fountain was lost to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a legal battle. Gauguin's Portrait of Mademoiselle Manthey did not return to permanent view for long, and was soon relegated to storage (as are most works on paper these days), only put on view at brief intervals to compliment changing exhibitions. Of the four works stolen and returned to the Worcester Art Museum in 1972, only two can be regularly seen by visitors today: Rembrandt's Saint Bartholomew and Paul Gauguin's Brooding Woman. Both are nicely featured in updated galleries, and are well worth the trip.

Art Thieves: 1972 Worcester Art Museum Heist

Security Guard Philip J. Evans was shot during the 1972 WAM Heist

FBI and Police with the recovered 1972 WAM Heist Paintings