|Pub Date||November 2017|
|# Pages||208 pages|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
There are four of us. We all grew up in Vermont and, although we each wandered off to other places after high school, we all ended up back in the Green Mountain State for one reason or another. We’re all strong, independent women, and we have what you might call a unique “hobby”—we are art thieves. Over the past five years, we’ve successfully pulled off nearly a dozen burglaries and to my total amazement we’ve never gotten caught. We plan each heist meticulously but, even so, there have been a few close calls.
Without exception, we sell all the pieces we steal, and we’ve made a decent amount of money doing it. Of course, we know it’s all terribly illegal, not to mention wrong, but the thrill of it is completely addicting.
Currently, we’re hovering around Sarah Finnegan’s large computer screen. Sarah is our de facto leader. She and I have been friends since grade school, and she’s the only person in the entire world allowed to call me by my given name, Matilda. I’ve always despised the name, and I’ve gone by Mattie since I was a little kid. Sarah is also the first person I came out to when I realized I was gay my senior year of high school. She’s the only one of the four of us who has kids, although she and her husband Jake split up a few years ago and now share custody of their two boys.
Sarah has the floor plans for our next target—the Schuyler House—up on her screen. We’re all staring at it intently as she walks us through its various quirks.
“As you guys can see, the layout of the house is a jumbled mess,” Sarah says. “It looks like the house was added on to multiple times without consideration for how the pieces fit together.”
“Yeah, wait till you see the place. There are all these weird passageways that lead to nowhere, and a couple of the rooms are so tiny that you can barely fit a chair and table in them. It’s really bizarre,” Kat says.
Kat Conroy is the only one of the four of us with any real art background. She has a master’s degree in art history and used to work at a gallery in Washington, DC. She first flagged the Schuyler House as a potential target over a year ago. Its art collection is renowned, and our reconnaissance to date indicated that security was a bit looser than you might find at a typical art museum. Our intel was aided by the fact that Kat scored an invitation to attend an artist’s retreat sponsored by the Schuyler House. While Kat was at the retreat, she was able to fully scope out the property, evaluate the floor plan and study the various security procedures they have in place. She also had plenty of time to confirm the exact location of some of the pieces we hoped to acquire.
Up until about twenty years ago, Schuyler House was part of the Schuyler Estate—a massive property in upstate New York. Back in the day, the estate was comprised of the main house, multiple outbuildings, and about one thousand acres of land. Eventually, the estate’s upkeep became too much for the remaining heirs. Rather than selling it all off, they sold most of the land but held on to the main house and converted it into a retreat for artists and writers. The retreat quickly became an icon in the contemporary art world, attracting artists from all over the world who came for the enlightening, and often raucous, retreats but also in order to flock beneath the astonishing art collection adorning the walls of the main house.
Schuyler House is extremely secluded. It’s located in a very rural part of New York State that most people don’t even know exists—the Adirondacks, a state park that also happens to be the largest park in the contiguous United States. It’s huge at more than 6.1 million acres, a land area greater than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. Most people think of Manhattan when they think of New York State, yet the vast majority of the state is actually fairly rural. The Adirondacks are unique too in that something like half of the land within the park is privately, rather than publicly, owned.
The house is located just outside the boundary of the Adirondacks and sits at the end of a three-mile long dirt driveway. The estate itself is nestled at the edge of a forest, and a river runs directly behind the main house. Not surprisingly, that area of New York gets a lot of snow in the winter, much more than other parts of the state due to its proximity to the Great Lakes. As a result, lake-effect snow frequently hits. Lake-effect snow is typically isolated to only a small geographic area, leading to huge regional differences in snowfall. I’ve seen times where the towns near the lake get hit with twenty inches of snow while a town only ten miles away barely gets a dusting. It’s really strange.
The Schuyler family art collection was started by Duncan Schuyler in the early 1900s. He collected art through his entire life, mostly impressionist and modern art by American and European artists—Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Matisse, O’Keeffe, and Kandinsky, to name a few. Near the end of his life he, and later his wife and daughter, also started to collect famous photographs. Our goal is to steal five lower-tier pieces from the collection.
Just like all our previous heists, we’ve spent countless hours researching and planning for the Schuyler House burglary. There’s absolutely no reason to think anything will go wrong, but for some reason Sarah has a bad vibe about this burglary.
“I don’t know, I just can’t shake this weird feeling I have about the Schuyler House,” Sarah explains after we’re done looking at the floor plan. “The only reason I’m not pulling the plug is because I seriously need the money. I’ve got like three hundred dollars in my checking account and the boys are headed off to college soon…I’ve saved almost nothing for their tuition.”
I rub her upper back gently. “Do you think we’ve missed something in our planning?”
“No, nothing like that,” she replies.
“What is it then?” Kat asks.
“It’s just that the house is so isolated and its floor plan is so tricky. I feel like we’re walking into a maze and we’re going to get trapped. Plus, we’ve been so damn lucky, and that luck has got to run out sometime, right?” Sarah asks.
“I hear you, but I’m actually feeling good about this one. The security they’ve got is the weakest I’ve ever seen for a collection of this caliber,” Kat replies.
“I’m with Kat. This one feels easy compared to some of our other heists. I’m pumped about it,” Ellen pipes in.
Ellen Church is the fourth woman in our group. She’s nearly six feet tall and is absolutely stunning with long, silky dark-brown hair, dark-brown eyes, and olive skin. Most people think she’s Latina, but she’s not. She went to Harvard Law School and went on to work for a high-powered law firm in New York. She even made partner but finally hung up her power suits for good when her marriage fell apart. I think she did pretty well in the divorce, but she never really talks about it. She doesn’t practice law anymore either. She moved back to Vermont after her divorce and now spends most of her time helping her brother tend to his Christmas tree farm.
“Plus, our plan is totally brilliant!” Ellen adds.
“It is pretty brilliant,” Sarah admits.
I have to agree. We’ve decided to rob the estate in the middle of a massive snowstorm. We came up with idea because a major blizzard hit Schuyler House when Kat was there for the artists retreat and the Schuyler House staff was totally unprepared for the big storm: they only have one snowplow truck and it was not enough to keep up with the unrelenting snow that inundated the long driveway. Kat, along with all the other retreat attendees, was stranded for two extra days. Not that the impassable driveway really mattered that much anyway since most of the flights in and out of the nearby airport were canceled due to the storm.
At any rate, once we learned that the Schuyler House staff struggled to maintain the estate’s driveway in the winter, we had an “aha” moment—vehicles, namely police vehicles, would have a tough time getting up the private driveway during a major snowstorm. Certainly, beneficial for would-be burglars. Of course, it also means that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to reach the estate by car, but we didn’t let that deter us. That area of the state is a snowmobile haven, and it has more miles of snowmobile trails than it does roads. It should be relatively easy to approach the house by snowmobile during a major snowstorm. We’re just waiting for the weather forecasters to give us our cue.
The four of us weren’t always art thieves. In fact, most of us have day jobs. I, for instance, am a partner in a small forensic accounting firm in Burlington.
The road to becoming art thieves started more than five years ago. Sarah and I were in New York City for our friend Sandy’s wedding, and while we were there, thieves slipped into an Upper East Side row house and made off with two incredibly valuable paintings.
Sarah read about the burglary in the New York Times and became completely fixated on the story. She couldn’t believe how simple the plot seemed. In the weeks that followed the wedding, Sarah obsessively combed the Internet for recent burglaries from private collections, amazed at how many had taken place in just the last few years, even in this age of supposed high-tech security. Not surprisingly, the burglaries she read about took place all over the world—wherever rich people lived. Further, a pretty low percentage of the stolen pieces were ever recovered and an even lower percentage of the culprits were ever apprehended.
Over the next few months, Sarah decided she could do it—slip into someone’s house and make off with some high-priced piece of art.
* * *
Sarah confessed her plan to me one summer night when we were at a beach party and three sheets to the wind. I just laughed when she told me because we were both drunk and I didn’t think she was even remotely serious.
A few days later, I ran into Sarah on the bike path in Burlington and she asked if I remembered our conversation at the beach party. I told her that I thought she was kidding, and she made it clear that she was dead serious. I still didn’t believe her because she’s about the most law-abiding person I know. She doesn’t even drive over the speed limit. I pressed her to explain this sudden desire to become a criminal, and she told me she was sick of being boring and that she was having a midlife crisis a little bit early. She also admitted that money was pretty tight and a little extra cash wouldn’t hurt.
When I was still non-committal, Sarah chided me and brought up the fact that I’ve always had a wild side and that stealing art should be right up my alley. I’m not sure about the “right up my alley” part, but she was right about me having a wild side. I may be an accountant, but I’ve done crazy stuff my whole life: I stole my parent’s car on numerous occasions well before I was of legal driving age; I hitchhiked to Florida for spring break when I was in high school; I nearly died on a back-country ski adventure when I got lost and had to spend the night in the woods in the dead of winter.
It took a while, but finally Sarah convinced me to join her. From then on, Sarah and I met regularly to either jog or bike. While we worked out, we began to build a plan. One of the first things we did was to establish two fairly basic guidelines to help direct our future decisions about what to steal and from where.
In terms of what to steal, we decided to focus on lower-tier pieces from impressive collections. In other words, we wanted to target pieces of significant value, but not “trophy” or standout pieces like those stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In terms of where to target, we decided to avoid major museums and instead focus on small private collections.
We aim for lower-tier pieces in impressive collections because it’s possible to make decent money stealing the lower tier-pieces but law enforcement is likely to be hesitant to throw major resources into finding them and institutions are less likely to offer large rewards for their return. Some thieves actually target pieces they think they can then turn around and “return” to the museum for a reward, but quickly we decided we’d leave that MO to low-level criminals, especially because a large reward usually inspires more people to expend resources to locate stolen works.
The decision to avoid major museums was a no-brainer since big museums are likely to have more sophisticated security than private collections. Furthermore, many large museums now attach RFID tags or GPS tracking devices to many of their pieces. Not surprisingly, most small private collections just don’t have the resources for this kind of technology.
Given that there are literally thousands of places in the United States alone that house incredibly valuable art, we figure these two guidelines would, if nothing else, help us to whittle down the list of targets on which to focus our research and scouting. Of course, we also hope these guidelines would help keep us out of jail, but we try to avoid even thinking about that possibility.
* * *
Sarah and I decided we needed to expand beyond our gang of two and try to recruit someone else to join us.
“What about Kat?” Sarah asked while we were debating who to recruit.
Kat seemed like an obvious choice to me. She’s been our friend for eons, and her extensive art background would bring a whole new level of the art expertise to our discussions.
“Think we can convince her to come over to the dark side?” Sarah asked.
I replied that I felt pretty certain that we could. I knew Kat loved art. It would probably pain her to steal it, but after her experience in DC, I knew she was pretty jaded about the art world and might want to get a little revenge.
Kat was fired from her dream job at Siddons Fine Art in DC. She strongly advised a wealthy collector not to purchase a piece he was considering. She warned him that the seller had a shady reputation and that the piece could be a fake. He, of course, blew her off and bought it anyway. It turns out it was a fake and the collector was irate. He told Kat’s boss that she’d encouraged him to buy it, probably because he’d been too embarrassed to admit he’d been duped. Of course, the owner of Siddons believed the collector and promptly fired Kat and told her she would never work in the art world again.
We decided to invite Kat to go for a hike so we could lay out our plan.
* * *
A few days later, Sarah and I described our burgeoning plan to Kat as the three of us trudged along the Camel’s Hump Trail. I was nervous to see how she would react.
“You guys are fucking crazy,” Kat said once we finished describing our plan. “But that’s why I love you!”
“So, you want to join us?” Sarah asked. “It could be your chance to get a little revenge after what happened in DC.”
Kat admitted that she was intrigued. She hadn’t been able to get a decent job since the incident in DC, and she was understandably still extremely angry about the whole thing. She agreed to help us do research but said she needed a little more time before she could decide whether she’d get more involved.
Before long, Kat and Sarah started spending hours together to pore over obscure art blogs, art history journals, and various other scholarly publications. Kat’s addition to the group really helped us refine our process for deciding which pieces and places to target.
* * *
Ellen became our fourth and final member. Ellen is a few years older than me, and even though we both grew up in the same town, we didn’t actually meet until we both attended Sandy’s wedding in New York.
When Ellen moved back to Vermont after her divorce, she happened to join a women’s cycling group Sarah was in. During one of Ellen’s first rides with the group, she and Sarah realized that they’d actually met before: they both knew Sandy and attended her wedding in New York. Anyway, Ellen and Sarah became fast friends.
Ellen, Kat, Sarah, and I all started spending a lot of time together. Ellen is so carefree and funny, and it was hard for me to imagine her as a buttoned-up lawyer. I quickly discovered she’s even crazier than me. She has a motorcycle she drives like a bat out of hell, and she goes skydiving every chance she gets. It’s like she lived the early part of her life doing what everyone expected of her and now she’s living life on her terms. The first time she got wind of our plot to steal art, she thought it was a joke. When she realized we were completely serious, she wanted in on the action. Like me, she was addicted to the thrill from day one.
Once we were a gang of four, we started to devise a plan for our first heist in earnest. It quickly became obvious to all of us that stealing the art would be the easy part; turning the stolen art into cash would be significantly more difficult. It’s not like we could walk into some gallery or auction house and try to sell a famous piece of stolen art.
It was during these initial conversations that I remembered a boy named Olivier. Olivier is French, and I met him in high school while I was visiting my aunt and uncle on their small farm about two hours northwest of Paris. My aunt is French, and she and my uncle met when she was an exchange student in the US. They eventually married and decided to settle in France, and I spent nearly every summer with them until I went to college. Olivier and his family lived on the farm that bordered my aunt and uncle’s property, and he and I spent countless hours together exploring the countryside. As luck would have it, Olivier’s grandfather was a shady art dealer in the outskirts of Paris and Olivier went to work for him after high school.
Olivier eventually became our fencer. I have no idea what he does with the pieces after we hand them over to him. I am not sure any of us ever wanted to know. Maybe they smuggle them into Russia or China or maybe they are involved with the mob or something.
We consult Olivier when we’re in the early stages of planning a heist, just to make sure he’s interested in the pieces we’re considering and to discuss a ballpark figure he would be willing to pay for them. All our communication with Olivier takes place on a super secure channel he set up so that none of it can ever be traced, and we often exchange dozens of messages with him before and after a heist. Every aspect of the “drop”—the actual way in which we deliver the art to his associates—is very carefully scripted, and he always follows the same exact procedure to get us our payment.
Once we carry out a heist, the four of us are always eager to pass the stolen art on to Olivier as quickly as possible. We don’t want to get caught red-handed, and we don’t want to worry about transporting the art long distances. Generally, we notify Olivier as soon as we actually have the stolen pieces in our possession—usually within forty-eight hours of the heist—and he responds with the name of a city somewhere within a few hundred miles of the location where we carried out the heist. I honestly have no idea how or why he picks the city for the actual drop, but presumably he picks a place where he has a trusted associate somewhere nearby.
After he gives us the name of the city, it’s up to the four of us to pick a physical location in or near the designated city to which we will deliver the art. We contact Olivier again after we’ve left the art somewhere for him and let him know where to find it. We do it this way so we never have to meet his associates in person and his associate (and any law enforcement or shady characters with whom the associate is involved) never knows where the art was dropped until after we’ve vacated the premises. Payment usually takes place a few weeks later once Olivier and/or his associates have the art in their possession and they’ve had time to examine the pieces. Our payment is always delivered to the same place: Colonial Storage, a giant self-storage facility in the suburbs of Boston.
Olivier pays us in US dollars about seventy-five percent of the time and in euro about twenty-five percent of the time. I used to protest whenever he paid us in euros rather than dollars until I read an article in The Economist about an effort by some international law enforcement agencies to eliminate high-denomination notes from various currencies (i.e. the hundred-dollar bill in the US and the S$10,000 note in Singapore). Apparently, law enforcement is making this push because, they argue, high-denomination notes are rarely used for legitimate purposes and are instead primarily used by criminals. Criminals, of course, are most likely to operate in a cash-only world and high-denomination notes are convenient because they’re easier to transport. It’s much easier to stuff fifty $100 bills in your pocket than five hundred $10 bills, for example. What interested me most about the article was that it included a graphic depicting the weight of ten million dollars (or its equivalent) in cash if paid using various currencies. According to the graphic, ten million in cash weighs a lot more if it’s in dollars (about two hundred twenty pounds) than the equivalent amount does in euros (about forty-six pounds) because the highest denomination in the US is the one hundred dollar bill whereas Europe has a €500 note.
Over the past five years, Olivier has paid us millions of dollars for the art we’ve stolen and sold to him. It amazes me how much money we’ve made even given the fact that we sell Olivier the art for a fraction of what it would fetch in the legit art world.
From the very beginning, the four of us decided to set aside approximately ten percent of the cash we make and deposit it into what we refer to as our “operating account”—an actual checking account that we opened under the name of Hatshepsut Consulting, a limited liability company we set up. Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, so we thought that would be a cool name for our shell company. We established the checking account primarily so that we’d have a joint account from which we could cover costs for stuff like reconnaissance expenses (hotels, travel, and supplies during our scouting missions) and all the supplies we have to buy to actually carry out the burglaries. However, we also opened the checking account to establish an emergency fund—a fund we can access if something goes terribly wrong with a burglary and we need to get our hands on a large amount of untraceable cash quickly.
When we opened the bank accounts, we also rented a safe deposit box at a bank in New York City and registered it to Hatshepsut Consulting. So far, we’ve managed to set aside more than one million dollars—about half is in the Hatshepsut checking account and the other half we keep in cash in the safe deposit box in New York.
After we set aside money for our expenses and emergency fund, we divide the remaining ninety percent of the proceeds evenly between the four of us. I give away a lot of my money to various charities—not that being all Robin Hood excuses what we do but it somehow makes me feel a heck of a lot better about it—and I pretty much squirrel away the rest. I guess I’m saving it for a rainy day.
The only one of us that has really blown through all of her proceeds is Sarah, and that’s mostly because of her ex-husband. Before they were divorced, Jake took most of the money she brought home and pumped it into “sure thing” investments and cockamamie business ideas. When he’d blow through the proceeds from one burglary, he’d start pushing Sarah to pull off another heist. By the time they got divorced, the two of them were actually in some pretty deep debt. Sarah’s only recently gotten herself in the black and just started to put away a little money in a college fund for her boys.
We didn’t have to wait long for the weatherman’s cue. The forecasters started calling for another massive storm to hit the area around Schuyler House only a few weeks after Kat returned from the artists’ retreat. As luck would have it, a blizzard is supposed to hit on Christmas Eve.
The four of us reconvene at Sarah’s house right after news of the storm appears so we can make all of our final preparations for the burglary.
“We totally hit the jackpot!” Ellen declares as soon as the four of us are gathered together. “I mean a major snowstorm on a major holiday. That means security details will likely be sparse and local police resources are likely to be severely strained.”
“Yeah, a serious jackpot,” Kat reiterates. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there was a reason thieves targeted the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum in the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day in the heavily Irish City of Boston—the cops were most certainly overwhelmed herding drunks.”
“You still got cold feet, Sarah?” I ask.
“They are warming up a little bit,” she replies and feigns a smile.
“Come on Sar, the burglary gods are shining on us,” Ellen says encouragingly.
“I know. Still, I think this one may be it for me,” Sarah replies.
“But you are our fearless leader!” Kat says in protest.
“Ha ha. Well, we’ll see. Check back with me and see how I feel after we pull this one off,” Sarah says.
“The boys with Jake for Christmas Eve?” I ask in an effort to change the subject. Somehow, the conversation is making me a little uneasy.
“Yeah, they’re with him tonight, but I’m supposed to pick them up around noon tomorrow once we’re back.”
“Does Jake know we’re planning another hit?” Ellen asks.
“No, I figured there was no reason to tell him. Things are generally cordial between us, but I still don’t trust him,” Sarah replies.
“Seems wise,” I reply. I’ve never really liked Jake. He’s friendly enough, but there’s something shady about him.
“Well, we should probably get to work, huh?” Sarah asks. “We’ve got less than seventy-two hours until showtime.”
We start by confirming the pieces we plan to grab and reviewing their exact location in the house, and then we go over the basic plan of attack for like the thousandth time. After that, we inventory our supplies and make a list of the things we still need to buy.
I’m encouraged that Sarah’s mood appears to improve dramatically as we work through the logistics. She’s always loved the planning component of the burglaries more than actually carrying them out. Ellen and I, on the other hand, thrive on the thrill of the burglaries themselves. I think Kat loves the planning as much as Sarah and the action as much as me and Ellen.
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