Author Kameel Nasr recently penned “The Museum Heist: A Tale of Art and Obsession,” which is based on the famous 1990 art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gazette conducted a question-and-answer session with him through email about the book. (The session has been edited.)
For more information, visit kameelnasr.com or themuseumheist.com.
What prompted you to write a novel on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft? How would you describe the book?
The Gardner heist was and remains the largest theft of any kind. The art is valued at up to half a billion dollars, and after 25 years, the crime remains unsolved. It’s an obvious opportunity for anyone with an imagination to make up a story and solve the mystery. I love art and thought that the tragedy that befell our city would help us assess our commitment to our cultural heritage.
“The Museum Heist” gave me an opportunity to talk about art and one of my favorite subjects, ancient Greece. The protagonist, named Paris, is a classical scholar who did time for art forgery. Together with a Columbo-type lieutenant, Paris uses his knowledge of forgery and the classical world to solve the mystery. There’s also a mini love story between him and the museum curator, Helen (OK, I admit Paris and Helen is a bit heavy handed). The book I created is a fun Boston-based read. I don’t want to write about killing or violence, so this is a cozy mystery, one that leaves you satisfied at the end (this is the feedback I’ve been getting). It is a cultural journey.
What is it about the theft that has captured your interest?
We are all captivated by the theft simply because it hasn’t been solved and there’s a $5 million reward for the art. Was it done by a local crime gang or an international movement, such as the Irish Republican Army? Was it a hit for a wealthy art connoisseur? Was it two thugs who saw an opportunity and didn’t have much of a plan after that? Was it an inside job? Or was it to bargain for the release of an important prisoner? And why has the FBI, who at one time had 40 agents full-time on the case, not been able to solve it? Moreover, since law enforcement has promised immunity and the statute of limitations has long expired, why hasn’t anyone turned in the art for the reward? There’s nothing else anyone can do with the art except return them for the reward.
How big of a loss are the paintings to the museum and to the art community?
There are only 34 existing Vermeers. His “The Concert,” is stunning, besides being the most valuable painting ever robbed (not counting the Mona Lisa, which was robbed a couple of times in the early 1900s). Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is the only seascape he painted. When art lovers see a real work like that, we get this feeling inside our chests. The thugs who took this art deprived us. The Gardner Museum is one of the most beautiful places in the country. Even if you’ve never been there and don’t care about art, our museums attract millions of visitors to our city. It was not the Gardner that was robbed—we were all collectively robbed. The dollar figure on the art is what it’s worth at Christie’s. For us, we lost part of our heritage, which is beyond money. It is equal to ISIS destroying historical sites they don’t like.
Do you think the paintings will ever be found and returned?
I am by nature an exuberant optimist. However, in this case it seems more probable than not that we may never see this art again. Like many people, I read everything I could on this crime. The FBI said a couple of years ago that they solved the case, and a law enforcement person close to the case told me that it was only a matter of months before the art was returned. Obviously, they were mistaken, and now the only sure thing we can say is that no one knows. The art is either lost or, God help us, destroyed. Art has been destroyed in other high-profile cases in order to avoid arrest. It is probably safe to say that if the art still exists, no one alive knows where it is. As I said, there is nothing anyone can do with it except return it for a considerable chunk of money. That it hasn’t been returned by now makes it unlikely that the case will have as nice an outcome as my story.
Why did you become a writer?
My first book came out, ironically, the year the Gardner was robbed. I had bicycled the world and wanted to share my experience. I was not a born writer or a fast writer, but spent years developing my craft. I love beautiful sentences and eloquent syntax. I love a story that takes me to a world I don’t know. Writing has become an arena for personal discovery, almost a meditation. Now that I have the bug, there is no way that I can stop writing.
What writers have influenced you and why?
I read across a wide spectrum: science, religion, social studies, and of course fiction. I’ve read a lot of books on spirituality, mostly from Buddhist and Christian perspectives. It’s hard to say who influenced me from that boiling pot, but I love all the popular fiction writers, from Grisham to Lehane to Turow to Elizabeth George (who I just met in Boston). I’m not sure anyone can beat John le Carre for his language and style. I was influenced by Edward Gibbon, and not surprisingly the classical scholar protagonist in “The Museum Heist” loves his cold wit.
Are you working on any other books/projects?
“The Museum Heist” is the first in a series of Boston-based cozy mysteries that explore the city’s rich culture. The next book will be about classical music. I am also working on a serious historical book on the development of Christianity during the time of Constantine the Great. I believe that the Christianity that emerged during that time was as intolerant, zealous and repressive as the Taliban. Did I mention that I read a lot of history? I had to do an awful lot of research for that book, and like theft of our beloved Gardner Museum, there is much more that we don’t know than we do. Some months ago, I launched the Curiosity Foundation, which aims to promote tolerance and sustainability. We hope to start projects in the coming months. All the money from my books goes directly to this foundation.