This week marks an unusual anniversary for Amherst College's Mead Art Museum
: it's the thirty-ninth anniversary of a crime that the Mead, in collaboration with the FBI, is redoubling its efforts to solve, and in which members of the public have the chance to play a heroic role.
On the night of February 8, 1975, in response to an anonymous tip received at Massachusetts State Police Barracks in Northampton, Amherst College Police made an alarming discovery: tracking footprints still visible through the new snow, they found a museum window broken, and the room within littered with empty picture frames. Museum staff quickly realized that three Dutch canvases had been savagely removed from the frames and stolen: 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.
Although the trail of the stolen paintings soon turned as cold as the winter weather, the museum warmly pursued its response to the theft. The Mead registered the lost artworks with the Art Dealers Association of America, to alert prospective vendors of their problematic provenance, and Amherst College overhauled the museum's security program and addressed vulnerabilities in the facility. Insurance compensation allowed the college to acquire a "replacement" painting by Van Vliet, Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, in 1982.
Years later, in January 1989, there was a breakthrough in the investigation: during an undercover drug sting in Illinois, police recovered the paintings by Van Vliet and Lastman, which were being offered as collateral in a drug deal. More information appeared in the 2009 best-seller The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Thief, in which the author, Myles J. Connor, Jr., took credit for the Mead heist, describing it as an impulsive change-of-mind, one he made after coming to the Amherst area with plans to rob a bank.
In the absence of new leads on the whereabouts of the Lambrechts, Mead Head of Security Heath Cummings set to work scouring museum files and college archives, and conferring with colleagues and experts to assemble as much information as possible on the case. "I've been researching this case for several years," Cummings said, "trying to clarify the details that have been lost with time. After collecting and reviewing old files, news articles and witness recollection on a nearly forty-year-old case, it is safe to say we have learned all we can about the theft, enough to officially reopen the investigation. Our goal is to discover the fate of the Lambrechts painting, and bring it back home to Amherst College. The prospect of putting it back on display with the other two paintings that were recovered in 1989 is a very exciting one."
Amherst College's Mead Art Museum is working with the Boston Division of the FBI and the FBI's Art Crime Team to locate and recover the painting. As part of that effort, the painting has been listed in the National Stolen Art File. Anyone with any information relating to the theft, or to the location of the painting, should contact the FBI at 617-742-5533, or online at https://tips.fbi.gov.
Who can predict the next lead in the case? Perhaps someone reading this announcement holds the clue to solving the Mead's decades-long mystery.