The Harvard Job

A look at mastering the art of pinching paintings with notorious museum thief Myles Connor

What does it take to steal a Rembrandt? Surely one must divert the museum guard’s attention, disable alarms, twist through zigzagging lasers and plan a smooth escape. At least so it would seem from art heist films like “The Thomas Crown Affair.” But, according to the infamous art thief Myles J. Connor, Jr., all you really need is the audacity to stride into a museum during open hours, grab a painting, and run like hell.

He should know. He’s done it himself.

“There was the romance of that kind of theft,” Connor says.

At various points in his life Connor has been a musician, a bank robber, and a cat burglar. He’s gotten into violent vendettas against Boston police, been put in jail, and broken out armed only with a gun carved out of soap. He even owned a pet cougar. But Connor is most notorious as a master of the art heist—so notorious that he was suspected of the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum while incarcerated.

Connor—who estimates that he has pulled off 30 heists in his lifetime—enjoyed figuring out how to infiltrate museums. “There was the challenge of getting into these places,” he says.

But in describing his adventures, he makes the “challenge” seem almost negligible. His memoirs, recounted in the new book “The Art of the Heist,” are thus vastly impressive despite their troubling implications. Connor’s anecdotes speak to the vulnerability of some of the most prominent galleries in the country—Harvard museums included—whose efforts to balance visitor safety with property protection do not always guarantee the security of the artwork.

“In reality,” Connor says, “there’s no museum in the country that couldn’t be taken down.”



MEETING THE MASTER

Connor is the son of a policeman and the great-nephew of a Hudson Valley painter. His family collected antiques, and he recalls learning about both them and art as a child. This early aesthetic education had more than practical importance. “I was brought up with the items and appreciated them,” he says.

Connor’s background doesn’t bring to mind that of a master criminal. He was born and raised in Milton, an affluent Boston suburb, and is a personable, articulate, and intelligent man. “Are you aware of my SAT scores?” he jokes. “They’re very high.” Given a second chance, he claims he would have chosen a different career path. “I imagine that I would have been a good doctor,” he says. “I would have enjoyed being the curator of a museum.”

But Connor’s downfall was his rebellious streak. His teenage activities were disobedient but relatively harmless, involving the purchase of a Harley against his father’s will and running around with his rock band, Myles and the Wild Ones.

Still, not all was innocent; the band did indirectly lead Connor into the circles of Italian mobsters, and he soon became involved in small-scale crime. “It wasn’t until my first successful museum robbery in 1965 that I began to think of myself as an actual criminal,” he writes. From then on, Connor traveled down a slippery slope to more heists and bank robberies.

In several ways, Connor’s attractive personality served him well in art theft. The joint author of his book, Jenny Siler, reports that when she interviewed his partners in crime none of them would speak ill of him. “I have never in my life met someone who could engender such incredible loyalty,” Siler says. His sharp-eyed intelligence must have been another asset when it came to eluding security measures. “He thinks of things that other people wouldn’t think of,” Siler says, a quality that serves him well as both author and thief. Her other impressions of him as a co-author similarly summarize his attributes as an art thief: “He was very helpful, very pleasant. Smart. Capable.”

NOT THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR



Most of Connor’s art heist stories don’t sound like the movies. Rather, their main appeal lies in the amazingly low-tech and comical measures Connor used to break into museums.

The first heist Connor undertook, at the Forbes Museum, he accomplished on his own. After repeated visits to the place, he realized that the young night watchman consistently left the museum for hours at a time. “I waited until he went out,” he says. Connor further writes in his memoirs that he simply pried open a basement window and carried off what he wanted. He was 20-years-old and had no prior experience of heist.

Most of his other robberies also went smoothly, without tripping over security measures. “They could always be circumvented,” Connor says. He worked sometimes with associates and sometimes without, sometimes armed and sometimes unarmed. But with just a little research, a plan and—especially once he became notorious—a disguise, no museum ever undid him. “Every one I ever targeted I took down,” says Connor, who laughs at the idea of being caught.

Probably his most fascinating—and simplest—story is that of the Rembrandt. After robbing the Woolworth family estate in Maine, Connor found himself in trouble. A friend, John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police, made a throwaway quip that Connor took a little too seriously. “John said to me ‘Myles, to get you out of this situation, it’ll take a Rembrandt,’” Connor recalls.

Connor accepted the challenge. On April 14, 1975, he bought a ticket to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and walked in as a visitor. He was armed, disguised as a chaffeur and accompanied by one friend—although six more were in on the plan. With a getaway car waiting, Connor snatched a million-dollar Rembrandt portrait off the walls and ran out of the building. Having eluded capture, Connor then negotiated the return of the portrait for a lightening of a previous sentence.

Overall, Connor’s heists were well-planned and successful, but they were not ideological. He has nothing against museums in general and his vast knowledge of Japanese art once earned him an offer—while under the alias of Dr. Michael Joseph—of a curatorial position in the Asiatic art department of a gallery that he declined to name. He took a liking to the staff and decided against stealing any art from it. “They were personally attracted to the stuff and they were emotionally attached to it,” Connor says.

Moreover, Connor says that his museum heists were not malicious. “Anytime I took something major from the museum it was with the intent of giving it back,” he says—albeit at a profit to himself. Still, he does admit to keeping and selling many of the pieces that he stole.



PITFALLS OF PROTECTIVE SECURITY

With such vast experience in art robbery, Connor has become well-versed in museum security. For example, he is keenly aware of the psychological importance of disguise. “People pay attention to outfits,” he says. “If you have a suit and a tie and you look like a professor, they treat you like a professor.”

Connor also finds that American museums in particular lack important security measures. In various foreign countries, like Turkey, he claims that protection is better. “You have armed guards and then you have state-of-the-art alarms, and it would be very difficult to take down a museum like that,” he says. “They don’t have that in the U.S.”

Without such measures, Connor avows that very few U.S. museums are safe from grab-and-run heists like his own at the MFA. “The only way they could prevent something like that from happening is if they had a security system—if you hit a button and the door would lock. Short of that, almost any museum in the country could be taken down in that fashion, as long as the stuff was accessible to the road.” He cites the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as one such vulnerable place.

Steven P. Layne, a member of the Museum, Library & Cultural Properties Council of the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS), corroborates his theory. “Basically if somebody’s going to grab something and run and they are strong-armed, most security officers in most applications—not just museums—are not prepared to deal with that.”

Moreover, Layne adds, all automatically locking doors of the sort Connor mentioned can be overridden by fire alarms.

In Connor’s opinion, museum security guards are also underpaid, unmotivated, and generally lack the sort of sentimental attachment that deterred him from stealing from the previously-mentioned gallery. He doubts that many guards would risk injury or death to protect the art within their galleries. “I think there are some that are foolish enough,” Connor says. “I mean, obviously, one pursued me down the steps of the MFA, but it depends on the individual.”

Siler likewise has little confidence in the security of valuable art kept in galleries. “The way that museums are portrayed in the movies as having this high-tech security, you know, really—laser beams, and metal doors that come down—for the most part that’s not true,” she explains, and she believes that an intelligent thief like Connor could do it all again. “There’s a lot of art that is still not protected.”



THE FRAGILE HARVARD BUBBLE

Does Harvard do enough to protect the art throughout campus?

The university boasts an impressive art collection of over 250,000 pieces, mainly kept within the walls of Harvard Art Museum, an organization that comprises the Arthur M. Sackler, Fogg and Busch-Reisinger Museums. The latter two buildings are currently closed for renovation and thus much of Harvard’s collection is presently in storage.

According to one security guard at the Sackler who wished to remain anonymous because the museum has a strict policy against discussing security measures with the media, these stored pieces are well-secured with deadlocks on vaults keeping potential thieves out. This seems wise; Connor, for instance, has stolen much from storage rooms in his lifetime. “One of the rarest items and the most valuable items that I took was a Renoir,” he says. “That was from storage [and] was never reported missing.”

Museum spokesman Daron Manoogian says that beyond vaults or deadlocks, stored pieces are protected by other security systems as well, though he declined to name them, citing a policy not to comment on specific security measures. “A critical aspect of maintaining proper security for any museum is to keep all such measures strictly confidential,” he said in a statement.

The pieces on view in the Sackler, however, may be at greater risk considering they are—to use Connor’s own phrase—accessible to the road. According to the same guard, none of the security staff within the museum, including his own supervisor, is armed, though they have a direct line to the Harvard University Police Department. “If there is a problem that might entail violence we’re supposed to use our radio and say, ‘Hey, let’s get the HUPD over here,’” he explains.

Security guards may not be chosen for their experience with art or security; another Sackler guard who also wished to remain unnamed because of the Museum’s press policy said they did not have any prior experience in security. The guard mentioned that all the Sackler security guards were given a day’s worth of training specifically focused on the protection of cultural items, but admits, “I kind of forgot what happened in the training.” Manoogian says that in addition to that training session, guards go through multiple other seminars over the course of a given year.

Instead of primary protectors of the art, the officers say they see themselves as guardians of visitors’ safety and sources of edifying information. “We’re sort of glorified ushers,” the first guard says.

Thus the guards themselves—six for the entire Sackler—act as little more than a deterrent to art heist. Their training includes a little self-defense, but the guards interviewed say they could not stop an armed robbery. “Primarily it’s just being here as a presence to discourage theft,” the first guard says. “If they came in with arms, we would let them take it [the targeted piece] and call the authorities.”

Other security measures in the Sackler include surveillance cameras, silent alarms that are tripped by proximity to the art, and alarmed doors. Apparently, there are no remote operations of any of these doors; the guards suppose that they could be closed with a key in the case of an attempted theft and escape.

Finally, the artwork is firmly affixed to the walls to prevent grab-and-run heists. But without armed guards or remotely operable doors, would these measures be enough to deter a thief like Connor?

By ASIS’ standards, Harvard’s security measures are appropriate. Layne would not recommend that museums arm their guards or install doors that could be locked remotely. “There is very little need for a museum to have an armed guard,” he says. “You don’t want a gunfight in a museum.” And as for lockdown doors, “There are some legalities involved. You can’t trap someone in a place.”

Fortunately, Harvard Art Museum—which according to Manoogian has a system of security measures in place that meets recommended practices for museum security—has never faced the embarrassment of a successful heist. Still, a few crimes have been attempted, according to one Sackler guard. One Degas showed subtle signs of being cut out of the frame, although the culprit was never caught in the act and disappeared among the crowd.

The art that adorns other campus buildings like Memorial Hall and the upperclassman houses is less heavily protected.

According to Jade C. Gardner, a Memorial Hall staff member, the building is alarmed and under constant patrol surveillance. “Security does patrol this area during the day and during the night,” she says. Like the others, she cites the direct line to HUPD as a security asset. “We call them, they come right away,” she says. Still, Annenberg is filled with sculptures and paintings but appears to lack high-security doors; Gardner was also unsure as to whether or not the security guards were armed.

One Eliot House security guard, Muhammad R. Shams, avowed that no security guards he knew of carried weapons, including himself and all the other House guards. The upperclassman Houses do not have official security staff on duty during daylight hours, he says. They are watched only from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m., and in the interim, only building management and superintendents are present.

If somebody did attempt to rob the House, the guard on duty may not be able to do all that much. “If I see it, I can stop it,” says Shams, who is more concerned with student protection than the portraits in the dining hall. The police would have to file a report and investigate themselves. “Those are the boundaries, the line between their job and our job,” Shams explains. Layne agrees: “It’s a job for the police, not the security to handle.”

However, more localized attention might be worthwhile. Many of the Houses are only accessible through Harvard I.D. card swipe access, but some—like Kirkland House—are effectively open to the public during the day. In light of Connor’s comments, Harvard may essentially be vulnerable to heist. The proper protection of our art, as per Connor’s requirements, would require the installation of better technology. But perhaps museums, supposedly welcoming forums for public enjoyment of art, should not be threatening places with armed guards and heavy surveillance; movie-style defenses could avalanche into situations with less-than-picturesque consequences. Says one guard: “Our boss has... said he would not want anybody hurt over a piece of art.”

—Staff writer Antonia M.R. Peacocke can be reached at peacocke@fas.harvard.edu.