I have one hell of a story to share whenever I meet an art aficionado or collector at a party. The short version goes like this: When I was working as a staff reporter for the Boston Phoenix around 2012, I spent a year identifying several hundred items that have been stolen out of the Massachusetts State House since the cornerstones were laid on Beacon Hill in 1795. I even tracked one of those items down—it’s apparently in storage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—but no one seems to care.
Sounds crazy, right? Why wouldn’t the state want to get the piece back? Frankly, I don’t know. Former Gov. Deval Patrick was allegedly angry with me for writing the critical story, and his minions refused to follow up. His replacement hasn’t been any better; I attempted to alert Gov. Charlie Baker about the situation in his first term, but his team wouldn’t return my emails or calls. Here’s a bit more background, from a follow-up I wrote for DigBoston in 2015:
Amateur larceny probably accounts for most of what has vanished from the State House, keepsakes nonchalantly pocketed by lawmakers and legislative aides with sticky fingers. A select few robberies, however, resemble more the work of professional crooks, the likes of whom may have also swiped the bust of early public education advocate Charles Brooks, an ally of Horace Mann who helped modernize American pedagogy. …
The best proof that the sculpture in Los Angeles came from our State House is an auction record dating back to 1992. Though the identities of the seller and buyer are private, a marble bust of Brooks—perfectly resembling the item in question—was auctioned off by the Hub-based Grogan & Company for $6,000 on Dec 9, 1992. The following year, a marble bust of Brooks was donated to the LACMA. …
I compared an image of the work from LACMA’s catalogue to a photo from the 1920s that was snapped at the State House, and they appear to be identical—both with distinct marble characteristics right down to a signature spot on the base beside the subject’s birth year.
Since state leaders, LACMA directors, and even the Beacon Hill auction house that sold the Brooks bust have all stonewalled me over the past eight years, I have resolved to do whatever it takes (so long as it’s legal) to get the bust back for Mass in the new year. My investigation was initially inspired by the search for the stolen Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings, and the excellent recent podcast series by the Boston Globe and WBUR about that heist, Last Seen, has spurred me back into action.
I already have a call in to the bust’s LA-based owner, who lent Brooks to the LACMA, and have started trolling the museum on Twitter. On the Boston side, I’m even trying to track down the crook who stole it in the first place; as far as Los Angeles, I’ll be flying out there in the next few months, and I look forward to confronting LACMA officials in person.
Alternatively, they can simply give in now and return the piece of art. Either way, it will be back in the Commonwealth by this time next year.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.