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Art Heists Recounted In 'Stealing The Show'


Imagine being entrusted with the security of thousands of artistic treasures, from ancient Greek vases to Egyptian gold and mummies to Rembrandts and da Vincis, and millions of visitors, including royalty, presidents and folks bearing fanny packs and wearing sandals. Well, John Barelli was chief security officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, worked there for almost 40 years. And now he's written "Stealing The Show: A History Of Art And Theft In Six Crimes" with Zachary Schisgal. John Barelli joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Barelli.

JOHN BARELLI: Well, thank you, and glad to be here.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the 1990 famous heist, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston - a couple of Rembrandts, Manet, Degas, Vermeer. You're pretty convinced they had to have help on the inside. But it's never been solved, has it?

BARELLI: No. No, it hasn't. Interesting case - and one of the things that really got me really confused about the whole case was that the objects that they chose to take - the great piece that was taken was the Vermeer. That was - it was a great Rembrandt. But everything else wasn't worth that much. They spent 81 minutes in the museum. And then they left - never been solved. And my feeling is that someday, they'll show up. Things will show up.

SIMON: And we should explain. The statute of limitations has expired. So...

BARELLI: Yes, it has.

SIMON: In theory, could someone just say, hey, I've got it?

BARELLI: Yeah. And they - a year or so ago, they raised the reward to $10 million.

SIMON: But I wonder, if nobody has come forward and the statute of limitations has expired, does that suggest - God forbid - something has happened to it?

BARELLI: That or they're laying somewhere in some attic, and somebody will come across them someday. In the book, I have a couple of cases where we recovered a tapestry that was missing for 12 years. And, you know, it just surfaced in a gallery in London.

SIMON: How do you fence a piece of art that's well-known? I'm not asking because it's something I'm interested in doing, but...

BARELLI: Some people have built-in fences who they know they could go to a certain dealer and sell. Others - like in the book, we have the Ramesses - the ring that was stolen by two teenagers who just, after they stole it, didn't really know what to do with it. They went into a jewelry shop and...

SIMON: Yeah. It was over in an hour or something, right? Yeah.

BARELLI: Exactly.

SIMON: The emperor Augustus almost cracked up on your watch.

BARELLI: Yeah. That was - the Vatican exhibit was coming into the Met, some Leonardos, really fine, fine pieces of art. The Augustus was one big crate. And as the truck was coming down the ramp, you could see the truck driver was going too fast. And the top of the crate hit the concrete support beam in the garage, and all you heard was a crunching of wood. And my heart almost stopped.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARELLI: We had the curators and a lot of representatives from the Vatican on the loading dock. It was impossible that this great statue wasn't damaged but, in fact, miraculously wasn't damaged.

SIMON: I'm surprised they let you handle anything after that.

BARELLI: Yeah. I'm surprised I had a job after that (laughter).

SIMON: Didn't know until reading your book, Mr. Barelli - people sometimes try and sneak their own artwork into a great art museum.

BARELLI: Yeah. The big case we had was, in his infancy, this graffiti artist, Banksy, put the painting up on the wall. And the guards found it right away because it was a lady with a gas mask - was the painting. And we took it down. And then he went on to get some publicity off of it. He did it in other museums. And from time to time, others, you know, tried to do the same.

SIMON: What's the worst art heist movie you think you've ever seen?

BARELLI: I guess "The Thomas Crown Affair." I mean, it was, you know, in broad daylight.

SIMON: That's been made a couple of times - Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway - Rene Russo, Pierce Brosnan.

BARELLI: Yeah. It was entertaining - I don't want to say - but sensational, not true to life. What I like to say - art theft - it's opportunity. It's either internal opportunity or a professional who sort of plans something, as - we would say - the Gardner.

SIMON: Do you ever go back to the Met now as a tourist?

BARELLI: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I do. It's sort of bittersweet. You're there as a tourist. But you remember when you used to do what you had to do to keep it safe.

SIMON: John Barelli - his book "Stealing The Show: A History Of Art And Theft In Six Crimes." Thank you so much for being with us.

BARELLI: Thank you, Scott. I appreciate it.


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