February 16, 2018

UPDATE: BPL’s Lost Artwork Recovered Following Ryan’s Resignation

This article has been updated to reflect the resignation of Amy Ryan. This article has been further updated to reflect the recovery of the missing items. This article has been further updated to reflect the resignation of BPL board of trustees chair Jeffrey Rudman.

Reading_room_-_Boston_Public_Library,_McKim_Building_-_DSC09268Two valuable works of art were thought to have disappeared from the print collection at Boston Public Library’s (BPL) flagship Copley Square central branch. The pieces—a Rembrandt etching, “Self Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre,” and a 1504 Albrecht Dürer engraving, titled “Adam and Eve”—were reported missing by then-BPL president Amy Ryan on April 15, triggering a police investigation and prompting BPL officials to take stock of internal security and collection management practices. Ryan resigned on June 3, in the wake of the resulting controversy. The following day, the missing items were located, misfiled within the print stacks.

Laura Irmscher, BPL’s chief of collections strategy, first became aware that the Dürer print was missing—and possibly had been for several months—on April 8. Ryan was informed of the situation two days later, after the print department staff was unable to find the artwork through an internal search. Ryan notified Jeffrey Rudman, chair of the BPL board of trustees, and after further internal investigation the print department determined on April 15 that the Rembrandt was missing as well. Ryan then contacted Mayor Martin Walsh and Boston police commissioner William Evans. A police report was filed and an investigation launched on April 29.

Susan L. Glover, BPL’s keeper of special collections, was placed on paid administrative leave on April 20. No charges have been filed, and BPL declined to comment further.

Police have estimated the Rembrandt, created in 1634, to be valued at an estimated $20,000–$30,000, and the Dürer is estimated to be worth more than $600,000. The Rembrandt was part of the Wiggin Collection gift in 1941, and the Dürer was part of the Leo M. Friedman estate received in 1958. Both pieces are small: the Dürer about eight by 11 inches, the Rembrandt approximately five by six.


The artworks’ disappearance highlighted several longstanding security and inventory issues within BPL’s special collections. In a May 28 interview with the Boston Globe, Ryan acknowledged that staff members had known the prints were missing as early as June 2014. A source cited by the Boston Herald thought it was possible that they could have been removed for display purposes and not returned, and early in the investigation Ryan said in a statement that she hoped the pieces had simply been misfiled. She also stated that BPL was “undertaking an updated inventory of the more than 200,000 prints and drawings that make up the print collection,’’ and would “conduct an independent analysis of security protocols.”

A $78 million renovation is currently underway at the central branch. Library staff members have expressed concern about security measures during the construction; Elissa Cadillic, president of the American Federation of state County and Municipal Employees Local 1526, told the Boston Globe in a May 28 article that she was concerned about lax security in construction areas.

The position of manager of systemwide security at BPL, currently held by Paul Levasseur Jr., was filled in October 2014 after a five-month vacancy.

While the prints were believed missing, several other possible lapses in security at BPL came to light. The Boston Herald reported on May 28 that a rare 18th-century political pamphlet was nearly discarded. “The Prospect Before Us,” by James T. Callendar, had been marked as a duplicate, and was given to the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library for a book sale in March. The Friends group flagged the work and contacted the BPL to make sure the donation had been intentional, at which point the library took it back.

Prior to her resignation on June 3, Ryan also revealed that library officials are investigating another possibly missing item: pages from a manuscript donated to the music department. The manuscript pages were not part of a police investigation, Ryan said. “I’m looking into that with the music curator,” she told reporters at the meeting.

In addition, a retired BPL employee sent an email to the city concerning valuable gold coins that had been placed in a time capsule in the McKim building’s original cornerstone in November 1888, and which were now apparently missing. “Based on his limited information, it is our estimation that these items went missing several decades ago,” BPL spokeswoman Melina Schuler told the Globe. “It is perplexing why this is only being shared now with library administrators, but we are taking this inquiry seriously.”


An independent audit of BPL was commissioned by the mayor’s office in December 2014 as part of a program to conduct performance audits of various city agencies, including the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Inspectional Services Department, with several more to come. The report, released May 27, found strengths in many areas, including BPL’s strategic vision, breadth of services, and outreach.

However, among its areas targeted for improvement were inventory and collections management, particularly for BPL’s research and special collections. “It is critical that the BPL have an inventory report that should list each item it owns, the item’s acquisition date, its cost and/ or estimated value, its condition, where it is housed, and if there are any special security concerns or standards required for its viewing,” the report stated, adding, “while security staff has taken steps to better control key access to high value areas, they agree that they are exposed to internal theft.” In addition, it was discovered that the library had no digital images of the missing prints. Ryan stated that the library’s collections had outpaced its digitization capacities.


Ryan feels that BPL’s methods conform to best practices for similar collections. “As librarians across the country do,” she told LJ, “we balance our free-to-all commitment, advancement of learning, and access to our materials, while taking our responsibility to safeguard them very seriously. So it’s a balance. We can’t be Fort Knox but we also have to safeguard our treasures.”

Special collections committee chair William Stoneman, a curator of early books and manuscripts at Harvard, agrees, Ryan said. “He says that our procedures for allowing the public to view rare materials in a secure environment are in line with generally accepted procedures in the field of special collections,” she told LJ.

BPL’s procedures weren’t developed in a vacuum. In 2012, BPL contacted the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the police department for suggestions on best practices for securing its special collections. While BPL declined to release the response, Walsh told the Boston Herald that he plans to make it public once he has read it.

However, Ryan did express concern about the lack of clear communications involving the artwork. “One of the administrative review areas of concern…is that our print staff did know that the Albrecht Durer engraving had been missing for almost a year before I found out about it,” she said.


BPL is pressing forward to step up security procedures in the future. After a special meeting with the BPL board of trustees on June 3, Ryan announced plans for an expanded inventory and assessment of the library’s special collections; the transfer of 24,000 physical catalog cards to the electronic catalog over the coming year; and a comprehensive systemwide safety and security plan, developed with independent firm KCMS Safety and Security Solutions, by the end of July 2015. The inventory, currently in progress under the consultancy of Dr. Martha Mahard, professor of practice at Simmons School of Library and Information Science, will catalog all 200,000 prints and drawings and 120,000 chromolithographs. BPL will also conduct a full inventory of its more than 100 special collections, beginning with a needs assessment to determine priority.

According to a BPL statement, changes have also been made to security protocol, including the addition of a two-factor system preventing individuals from entering the areas alone; a two-person access requirement for opening and closing of the department; new logging procedures for employees accessing secure materials; a detailed register of materials being moved by staff; changing the locks in secure areas; restriction of access; and additional security measure for physical keys.

Dan Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff, leveled criticism at the board of trustees. “We believe that the board needs to serve as the true independent check of the president and its staff,” Koh said. “We believe that it is the fiduciary duty of the board chair and the board to play this role.” Rudman told reporters after the meeting that the board continues to support Ryan.

Nonetheless, hours later, Ryan announced her resignation, effective July 3. “I am choosing to step aside at this time to allow the work of the Boston Public Library to continue without distraction,” she said in a statement. “I deeply appreciate the support shown to me by the Boston Public Library Board of Trustees throughout my tenure. The Trustees are a committed and faithful group of leaders who embody the mission of a public library built by the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning.”

The prints were located June 4. According to the Boston Globe, they were discovered by library conservation officer Lauren Schott after an eight-week search. Ryan stated that 14 library workers searched through 180,000 items—about 60 percent of the print collection’s inventory. “We’re thrilled to have found these treasures right at home,” Ryan said. “BPL is still committed to enhanced security and a full inventory, but today is a day of celebration for the entire team at BPL.”

After a meeting with Walsh on June 11, Rudman announced that he would be resigning his chairmanship, also effective July 3. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have served on the Boston Public Library Board of Trustees, and with such a thoughtful and engaging board,” Rudman said in a prepared statement. “The Boston Public Library has prospered under the leadership of President Amy Ryan and my fellow Trustees. The people of Boston must remember that the Boston Public Library is the greatest library system in the country.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.