• July 5, 2022

Vermeer goes in here–can technology help end art theft?

Last week while participating in our Rocket Leadership Summit, I was able to sneak out and visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the world’s largest private collection of art.

The museum is located in a building Isabella designed to resemble a Venetian palace, complete with a lovely courtyard garden.  She was a visionary and determined thought leader, collecting art though her whole life. She was originally focused on classic art, later collecting works from her contemporaries such as Sargent and Matisse.

The palace demonstrates Isabella’s determination to assemble something absolutely unforgettable–a home for a collection of more than 2500 art objects, from paintings and furniture, to rare books and china; from ancient to modern, with everything bound together by Isabella’s taste and passion. In some ways, it reminds me of how Andy Youniss originally founded Rocket to be a safe place for developers and other creative people.

The original museum building (image via Wikipedia)
The original museum building (image via Wikipedia)

Vermeer_goes_in_hereUnfortunately the museum was not as safe as Isabella has envisioned. In 1990, two men posing as police officers walked into the museum and stole 13 works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Manet and Flinck. The crime has never been solved, and the works have never been recovered. Today, very poignantly, empty frames hang where the paintings once were, some with chairs set in front to admire details. Every visitor ponders whether we will be able to see them again.

Looking at the empty frames made me wonder–can we apply technology to protect art better?

Like many of you, I have homing apps on all of my mobile devices, and recently used them to recover one of them when it went missing. These devices have no long-term value; most will be discarded in two years as soon as they become obsolete. Yet 13 unique masterpieces have been missing for nearly 25 years (“The Concert” is one of only 34 Vermeer painting). Is there a way to apply this technology to the art world? What if we could embed a chip in every piece of art, so it could be tracked just like our lost smartphones?

Missing: The Concert by Vermeer
Missing: The Concert by Vermeer

Or maybe we start somewhere else, by working harder to build a society that appreciates art. To give an example, our new friends at Artists for Humanity are working on this today. Maybe if more people appreciated how much work and heart goes into a painting, they wouldn’t be so quick to cut it out of a frame…

Or maybe the answer lies somewhere in between. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.


Patrycja Grzesznik 0 Posts

I am a Product Manager at Rocket by day and an artist by night. I love to paint, sketch, sculpt and make hats. Yes, hats.


  • Paul Pendle Reply

    December 10, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    It’s an interesting question regarding using technology to track such important artifacts. But we still have issues with support for tracking electronic devices. For instance, a stolen iPad can be tracked to the thief’s address, but the police will take no action on that. They simply are not interested. They do it for cars (c.f. Lo-Jack) so why not electronics? Is it merely a question of price? The superficial argument can be made that the authorities don’t want to get involved in he-said/she-said types of discourse, or that they don’t have time/bandwidth to track and follow-up on stolen electronics. Until we can get support from the authorities for tracking of stolen devices, I think the question is moot.

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