Like a lot of Rembrandt chasers before me, I made a valiant attempt to locate the art in question. I spoke with crooks, attorneys, and the attorneys of crooks, and when that didn't work, I tried players on the stiff side of the law. Early on, I called retired State House workers, as well as experts like Whitaker Jr. They all told me the same thing — that this type of cold case is nearly impossible to solve since the doers aren't common thugs.
"Why do people take these things?" says Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist. "It's a souvenir. You can buy a Bruins flag, or you could steal things out of the State House. . . . We don't have enough details to know what was stolen or how, but whoever it was — they probably weren't wearing black turtlenecks."
Even after the super-secure archives opened in 1985 — and the state's paper history was moved to Dorchester, along with some random objects including drums and muskets — there was still the question of how to best protect art that remained on Beacon Hill. Jack Patrick, who coordinated a State House restoration project that commenced in 1987, told the Associated Press that theft was still so common that he was hesitant to publicize an inventory out of fear "that items listed as valuable would disappear." Nonetheless, that year, the Massachusetts Art Commission produced the first-ever official inventory of State House art. Their findings: at least 13 items had gone missing since the last rough manifest was taken in the 1950s.
"Public institutions like the State House always receive art, but they're not always prepared to receive art," says Sinclair Hitchings, who served as keeper of the prints at the Boston Public Library for 43 years starting in 1961. Along with his wife Catherine Farlow, Hitchings wrote the book A New Guide to the Massachusetts State House in 1964. "There's some degree of safety if art is up on the walls since people would notice an empty spot. But sometimes things are displaced, and art goes into storage. That's where the trouble happens, because if someone takes art from a closet in the State House, who's going to notice?"
Some closets were likely emptied during the administration of Governor Bill Weld, who dealt some severe blows to the Art Commission's funding — and the overall facade in general — in the 1990s. According to a 1991 Globe article, skylights were leaking aplenty, while there were nearly 50 holes in ceilings around the building. As for artifacts, a project by legislators and outside experts "to preserve some 500 military and other historic flags" was scrapped less than a year after it began in 1990. To make matters worse, in 1995, a 60-pound bronze bust of Senate President Henry Cabot Lodge was lifted from the second floor.
Nowadays, more than two dozen paintings and all of the state's several hundred flags remain in storage. Most of those are in need of expensive healing; but overall, the collection is in its best condition ever. The building's art collections manager, Susan Greendyke — who assisted with the 1987 inventory and has continued accounting since — maintains a detailed list of all works, as well as flags, and arranges restorers to revitalize damaged pieces. All things considered, though, Greendyke's budget isn't nearly enough. Asked if she has ample resources to hunt busts and canvases that vanished eons ago, she nearly laughs. "I wish," she says, "but I'm just one person working part-time."
As my research for this article wrapped up, I gave my list of forgotten items a last run through some search engines — and got some surprising results. Staring out from my computer screen was the familiar face of education reformer Rev. Charles Brooks, as sculpted by the American artist Thomas Crawford in Rome circa 1842. Greendyke had told me she didn't know where it is. But the bust isn't missing after all — it's listed in an online database as being in storage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). According to their catalogue, the LACMA received the 25-inch marble from a benefactor couple, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert M. Gelfand, in 1993. Public auction records show that the piece was sold the year before by the Dedham-based Grogan & Company, for $6000. LACMA senior curator Ilene Fort told me that the museum will be looking into the artwork's provenance (READ MORE: "Busted: Did a missing Massachusetts State House sculpture turn up in Los Angeles?" by Chris Faraone).
Somewhere out there, there's a person reading this who's within arm's length of another missing Massachusetts treasure — maybe a panel from the old stained-glass ceiling, perhaps the family coat-of-arms of colonial agent Dennys De Berdt that was last seen in the governor's chamber around 1907. It's unlikely that any relics of battle, or peace, or lawmaking will reappear as a result of this mention — none of it has been reported as stolen, so there's little legal motivation for the perps to return anything, whether they're in black turtlenecks or not. But no matter what, it's still worth the search effort. Because whether they were lost, forgotten, trashed, or looted, every emblem is part of Massachusetts history.
And they're all still missing.
Chris Faraone can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @fara1.
CORRECTION The original version of this article mistakenly noted that the Massachusetts Historical Commission has described the first decade of the 19th century as when the State House became an official "repository for fine arts." It was in the first decade of the 20th century when the commission made that distinction.