In a storeroom in the attic of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston sits a large rosewood frame that once held Rembrandt’s painting “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”. It was stolen in 1990 during a heist that also saw the museum relieved of 12 other artworks including a Manet, a Vermeer and five by Degas, none of which has been seen since. Owing to the large size of the Rembrandt, the thieves — who gained entry to the museum by dressing as police officers — slashed the painting out of its frame, leaving the edge of the canvas still attached to the stretcher underneath. “That is paint that Rembrandt put there, what a thing to see,” says Kelly Horan, co-presenter of Last Seen, surveying what is left of the painting. “It’s a crime scene really. It’s like the chalk outline of the body at the murder scene.”
But, mercifully, there are no bodies here. If, like me, you enjoy a mystery but have had your fill of true crime podcasts in which presenters salivate over the grisly details of unsolved murders, then Last Seen, which launched last month and reached a million downloads in its first three weeks, will hit the spot. Created by WBUR and The Boston Globe, it’s the result of an 18-month investigation that found Horan and her team trawling through letters, private diaries and case files, as well as conducting interviews with FBI investigators, gallery officials and, most startlingly, the two security guards on duty on the night of the robbery, one of whom has never spoken publicly about his ordeal before.
We are only four episodes in (there are six more to go), so we can’t be sure that Horan and her co-host Jack Rodolico won’t have solved the crime and triumphantly returned the paintings to their rightful home by the end. But it won’t matter if they don’t. The podcast is slickly produced and the narrative cleverly told. Every time it feels we’re getting close to an answer, a new subplot opens up. Lately we’ve seen several podcasts being picked up and refashioned as TV series — see Lore and Homecoming on Amazon, 2 Dope Queens on HBO and Dirty John on Bravo. This would certainly seem like a contender.
In many ways Last Seen cleaves to the formula of a regular whodunnit — it sifts through old evidence, examines long-held theories and seeks to find new ones of its own. Even so, it shows us that you don’t need a corpse to create an atmosphere of jeopardy and suspense. Cultural vandalism and money — the stolen paintings have an estimated value of $500m — are what drives this story. Almost halfway through the series, the shock of the slashed Rembrandt sitting sadly in the attic continues to linger in the mind.
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