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Crimes of the art

How a 1972 heist at the Worcester Art Museum got botched, but influenced a generation of thieves.

By Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg
June 19, 2011

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Adapted from Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg. Copyright©2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

POPULAR CINEMATIC DEPICTIONS of daring art heists often feature a crafty overnight entry into a museum by balaclava-clad acrobats who rappel down walls and use smoke-making devices to maneuver around laser beams. The stunt is a veritable cliche, even though few outside a Hollywood studio could pull it off.

In reality, such intricate feats are unnecessary. Actual criminals know that storming into a museum brandishing firearms is the simplest way to take illegal possession of something as untouchable as a Rembrandt. Museum-rich Massachusetts holds a dark distinction in this regard. In May 1972, in Worcester, thieves created a grim precedent – the first known use of a gun to rob an art museum.

***

IT WAS AN OVERCAST Wednesday afternoon when two very small-time criminals handpicked by Florian “Al” Monday stepped into the Worcester Art Museum. One was armed with a .22-caliber revolver bearing a single round. In theory, the men were well drilled on what to do to get in and out without expending that round.

Monday, a career criminal, had come of age not far from the target and felt almost proprietary about the museum. He had cased it often, gone inside, as he put it, “many times on trial runs, touching and fiddling” and making note of window alarms, panic buttons, and security routines. Monday knew its blind spots and back stairways. Its location in an unraveling textile town in the central part of the state made it an attraction far off the beaten track, accustomed to light foot traffic, decorum, even inviolability. It was an easy score.

Although the museum has many riches – silver by Paul Revere, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, paintings by Whistler, Cezanne, and van Gogh – its sole Rembrandt, Saint Bartholomew (1632), was its star attraction. Or, as Monday puts it, the “no-brainer” on his theft list.

Now in his 70s, Monday speaks with astuteness and a touch of opinionated snobbishness about great paintings. He has spent his latter professional career in “sales,” as he puts it. When we met with him, he handed us business cards reading “Fine Arts: Monday – Anonymous.” He wore a loose tracksuit, a half-dozen ornate rings, and a hodgepodge of golden chains. He sometimes dyes his bushy white hair Day-Glo orange, and he speaks with a tobacco-scorched South Shore rasp. Yet a conversation elicits opinionated, even insightful remarks about art history and great painters. “No one touches van Gogh,” he says, “except maybe Renoir.” Recalling his very brief time as a Rembrandt owner, Monday breaks into one of his occasionally stilted monologues: “It’s an exhilarating feeling, holding that painting, especially when you have studied it for so long and are now the sole proprietor of said piece. To an art lover, possessing a Rembrandt can be likened to winning the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Stanley Cup all at once.” Later he mentions a lightly guarded Renoir at a small college in New England. “I’m thinking of banging the place,” he says half-seriously.

***

IN 1972, MONDAY WAS dead serious about wanting a Rembrandt, even one as lugubrious as Saint Bartholomew – the Apostle who carried Christianity to Armenia in the first century, only to be flayed alive and crucified upside down. Religious works across the centuries show Bartholomew gripping a blade to emphasize his sanguinary martyrdom. (He is, a bit ghoulishly, the patron saint of the hide-tanning trade. Rembrandt depicts him with sunken black eyes and a crevassed face beset by woe.) Monday had just read an article in the Boston Sunday Globe detailing the astronomical prices that some paintings were fetching at auction, and he reckoned the value of this Rembrandt at $2 million. It dawned on him that most museums were poorly secured warehouses for six- and seven-figure items, and he started dreaming about the money to be made burgling art on a grand scale. As it turns out, Monday was making the fine-art thief’s classic mistake: seeing dollar signs inside gilded frames. He barely considered the trouble he would encounter trying to resell his stolen works. He had no clue whether the Worcester Art Museum was insured or had the kind of cash reserves needed to ransom back its paintings. And he had no buyer lined up. A museum robbery, the keen young fence would learn, was not the same as filching cash and hocking jewels. It was like taking a hostage. And hostage scenarios rarely turn out well for criminals.

As he plotted his heist, Monday decided that taking just one painting, even a Rembrandt, made little sense. He scoped out three other Worcester works: Picasso’s Mother and Child and two paintings by Gauguin, The Brooding Woman and Mademoiselle Manthey. Beyond their portability and presumed resale value, all three were conveniently located near the Rembrandt, one flight up from the entrance (and exit). All were easy to yank from the walls, and all hung in parts of the museum that were sparsely populated by visitors and guards on weekday afternoons. “You can’t take them all,” Monday reflects. “This was basically a snatch-and-grab deal. Get the Rembrandt, get the others, and get out.”

Monday was methodical at first, weighing other locales to strike around New England – the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – and keeping a log of his targets. In it, he called the Worcester museum “an art thief’s dream,” noting that its “daytime security was decidedly nonexistent. . . . The guards were as antique as the relics in the collection. There were no cameras or push-button alarms, which made [it] the prime target for the first armed robbery of a museum in history.” Reflecting on his aspirations to rob museums from Boston to Hartford to New York City, he jotted excitedly in his logbook: “THIS IS THE PLACE TO START!!!”

Say what you want about Monday, he was correct in his assessment of museum security. There was no need for high-tech gadgetry, walkie-talkies, wall-scaling devices, and the other must-haves of modern Hollywood filmdom. All it would take was the wherewithal to pull off a routine home invasion. Such was the general state of affairs at museums in the early 1970s, and it helps explain why Rembrandts alone were stolen seven times in Massachusetts between 1972 and 1990, making the Bay State the nation’s art crime mecca. In an early editorial headlined “Art Theft Is Best in Daylight,” written the day after the Worcester heist, a Boston Globe editorial writer put it archly:

“During the day these treasure troves are protected by nice men – guards, we call them, who are retired military personnel or retired police, gentlemen with the best inclinations in the world, trained to be mannerly, living off some other pension, slow in the leg and absolutely, in the country of the .38 revolver, defenseless. . . . This has never been realized before. Or, if it has been, obviously nothing around the world has been done about it.”

***

MONDAY’S PLOT for hitting the museum was as basic as it comes: His team was to steal a car, drive to the museum, park legally, walk in, breeze up to the second floor, remove the paintings (placing them in good-sized bags), exit hurriedly, say nothing, and hurt no one. Monday chose William Carlson, 26, and Stephen Thoren, 30, two “unemployed laborers,” to handle the actual theft. He tasked a third member of his gang, a 22-year-old budding bank robber named David Aquafresca, or “Ackie,” with stealing the car and being the wheelman for the getaway. Aquafresca boosted a white 1965 Oldsmobile station wagon, a smart choice considering that the paintings, still framed, could then be stacked inside the capacious rear.

Monday now admits he left too much to chance. He told Carlson and Thoren to rob the museum before closing time but said the exact hour was up to them. He chose not to be on hand because he was “too recognizable,” owing to his multiple scouting trips in and out. And he allowed the two inside men an unloaded revolver “for intimidation purposes” and “so they couldn’t hurt anyone.” Predictably, Carlson and Thoren noted the absence of even a single bullet in the gun and balked. Monday knew loading it was a bad idea. He was confident just waving the pistol would send potential heroes scattering. “It would be Barney Fife versus them,” he says. But his robbers felt emasculated and complained long and loud, threatening to call off the heist. To placate them, Monday acquiesced by loading the .22 with one round.

***

ON WEDNESDAY, May 17, 1972, Thoren and Carlson arrived at the museum in the late afternoon and strode through the front entrance on Salisbury Street, where the stolen white station wagon sat, parked legally, Aquafresca at the wheel. Just a few dozen visitors roamed the galleries. As the pair made their way to the target area, Carlson encountered two teenage girls. Displaying an astonishing blend of bravado and boneheadedness, he stopped to chat with them. “He told them, ‘I’m gonna rob the place,’ ” Monday recalls incredulously.

As they removed the paintings from the walls, Thoren and Carlson were noticed by a handful of patrons. But because the duo worked brazenly, onlookers assumed the thieves were employees doing their jobs. The robbers placed their paintings in their big cloth sacks and hurried downstairs toward the exit.

At the same time, museum guard Philip Evans was speaking to a female visitor near the main entrance. A veteran security man, Evans was known as a courtly employee who studied the museum’s possessions and was eager to answer questions. Now he stood by his front desk, telling the visitor to place her items on a nearby coat rack.

Just seconds after Evans’s conversation with the woman, Thoren and Carlson reached the bottom of the main staircase and hustled toward the exit. What caught Evans’s eye was not their awkward loads, but something every staffer watched for as a matter of practice. The two “visitors” had bypassed the rails surrounding the large Antioch mosaic in the center of the Renaissance Court and were walking on its precious 2,300-year-old tiles. It was an amateurish mistake. Signs clearly marked the tiles as off-limits.

“You’re not supposed to walk across,” Evans called out. The words had no sooner left his lips than he realized the trespassers, who were now wearing ski masks, were carrying two big sacks apiece. As the thieves drew closer, one of them shouted: “Get out of my way! We’re going through!” The unarmed Evans moved to block their departure and grabbed at one of the thieves’ waists. Thoren struck Evans with his two bags of paintings, knocking him against a wall. Undaunted, the 57-year-old Evans threw his arms around his assailant’s neck. It was then that he felt the sting of a .22-caliber slug in his hip, fired by Carlson.

Evans fell to the floor and the thieves raced toward the station wagon. Evans managed to rise and limp after them. Passersby said the thieves put only three of the four paintings in the back of the getaway car. Comically, and for reasons unknown, Gauguin’s Brooding Woman was laid on the car’s roof rack while the man in the passenger seat stuck his right arm out the window to hold it down. Witnesses recorded the license plate as the Olds sped south on Lancaster Street, then west on Institute Road, toward a rendezvous with a second getaway car parked at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Paramedics were called to treat Evans. Visitors and staff bunched around him. The woman he had spoken with before the gunplay knelt by his side, applying pressure to his wound. Dazed, he asked why she was holding him so tightly. “I’m a nurse,” she replied. Employees scattered to summon police, investigate the scene, and take an accounting of the galleries. Thoren, Carlson, and Aquafresca, meanwhile, had transferred their plunder to the second car. Next up was a meeting with Monday, who was sitting in a bar in Worcester feeling “confident and excited.” The car with the three men pulled up, and when Monday got in, Aquafresca spilled the bad news: “They shot the guard.”

“What!?” Monday shouted. This was the worst news possible, worse than if the thieves had been caught. The shooting “put blood on the paintings,” he says. He confronted Thoren and Carlson, demanding, “Who’s the genius that shot the guard?” Carlson admitted pulling the trigger, and Thoren came to his defense. “We had to do it, he was in the way,” he argued. Monday just stewed. He knew that law enforcement would triple its efforts to find the robbers. He had not orchestrated a simple theft of paintings that could be stashed or ransomed. He was the man behind a violent felony, one that put the lives of genteel art lovers and museum workers at risk. His fate, were he caught, might not compare to that of sad old St. Bartholomew, but Monday knew his skin was very much on the line.

“The gun had one bullet in it, and the guy fired it – for one old guy at the door, 100 pounds soaking wet,” he recalls, still aggravated nearly four decades later. “They could have knocked him over without stopping.”

Monday put the paintings in the trunk of his car, drove to his home in Bellingham, and hid the art in a drop ceiling. He phoned Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester to check on the guard’s condition and recalls breathing easy after learning Evans had not suffered a life-threatening wound. In this regard, Monday was luckier than he realized. The bullet had come close to hitting Evans’s spine.

“Exceedingly happy,” as he puts it, that a murder charge was out of the picture, Monday decided to leave town. The theft was all over the news. “$Million in Art Stolen in Worcester, Guard Shot,” read the next morning’s Boston Herald. Regional and national newspapers produced articles about lax security at the nation’s museums. Speculation about the whereabouts of the art ran rampant. Interpol was alerted. Investigators spoke of greedy oil princes and foreign crime lords and “sophisticated professionals.” Yet what the Worcester caper truly showed was that art heists would almost always be the work of common criminals, local felons whose resumes listed bank robberies, armored-car stickups, and far less glamorous pursuits. As Monday puts it: “I was a local crook. I didn’t have international connections to help me out of this.” Such can be said of the vast majority of thieves who delve into the rarely rewarding world of museum robbery.

The 340-year-old Rembrandt spent four weeks in the hands of Monday and various small-time felons and hoods and was even hidden briefly on a pig farm in Rhode Island. All four paintings were recovered by the FBI and Worcester police, who marked Monday as a suspect after one of his handpicked men informed on him. Monday fled to Canada for two years but was tracked down by federal agents, caught, and sentenced, in 1975, to nine to 20 years in prison. He served five.

Today, Monday still crows about the Rembrandt snatched from the Worcester Art Museum. Despite the crime’s farcical unraveling, he calls himself a “true innovator” in major museum theft. His innovation: having crooks use a deadly weapon to swipe a masterpiece.

Anthony M. Amore is director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and an expert on art theft and homeland security. Tom Mashberg is an investigative reporter and writer and veteran newspaper editor. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

A TRUE AFICIONADO Onetime art thief Florian 'Al' Monday leads a peaceful life in Bellingham these days. (Photograph by Webb Chappell) A TRUE AFICIONADO Onetime art thief Florian "Al" Monday leads a peaceful life in Bellingham these days.
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  • June 19, 2011 cover
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