Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft
On March 18, 1990, 13 works of art valued at a combined total of $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In the early hours, guards admitted two men posing as police officers responding to a disturbance call. Once inside, the thieves tied up the guards and over the next hour committed the largest-value recorded theft of private property in history. Despite efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and multiple probes around the world, no arrests have been made and no works have been recovered. The museum initially offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to the art's recovery, but in 2017 this was temporarily doubled to $10 million, with an expiration date set to the end of the year. This was extended into 2018 following helpful tips from the public.
The stolen works had originally been purchased by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) and intended to be left on permanent display at the museum with the rest of her collection. Since the collection and its layout are permanent, empty frames remain hanging both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for their potential return. Experts are puzzled by the choice of paintings that were stolen, especially since more valuable artwork was left untouched. Among the stolen works was The Concert, one of only 34 known works by Vermeer and thought to be the most valuable unrecovered painting, valued at over $200 million.[when?] Also missing is The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt's only known seascape. Other works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck were also stolen.
According to the FBI, the stolen artwork was moved through the region and offered for sale in Philadelphia during the early 2000s. They believe the thieves were members of a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England. They also claim to have targeted two suspects, although they have not been publicly identified and are now deceased. Boston gangster Bobby Donati, murdered in 1991 as a result of ongoing gang wars, has been cited as a possible collaborator in the heist. Significant evidence suggests that Hartford, Connecticut gangster Robert Gentile knows the location of the works, although he denies involvement.
Around midnight on Sunday morning, March 18, 1990, a red Dodge Daytona pulled up near the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum along Palace Road. Two men with fake police uniforms waited for at least an hour in the car, possibly trying to avoid being noticed by people leaving a Saint Patrick's Day party nearby. Later at around 1 a.m., security guard Richard Abath returned to the front desk after patrolling the museum to switch positions with a fellow guard, the only other person in the building. At this time, Abath opened and quickly shut the Palace Road door, claiming he was trained to do this to ensure the door was locked. He claimed security logs from other nights would show that he had done this many times previously. The FBI has seized the logs, but has not commented on the issue further.
At 1:24 a.m., one of the two men outside pushed the buzzer near the door and told Abath they were policemen who heard of a disturbance in the courtyard, and requested to be let inside. Abath knew he should not let uninvited guests inside, but he was unsure on whether the rule applied to police officers. He could see the men and believed them to be police officers based on their uniforms. With his partner on patrol, Abath decided to buzz in the men. When the intruders arrived at the main security desk, one of them told Abath that he looked familiar and there was a default warrant out for his arrest. Abath stepped out from behind his desk, where the only alarm button to alert police could be accessed. He was quickly asked for his ID, ordered to face the wall, and then handcuffed. Abath believed the arrest was a misunderstanding, until he realized he hadn't been frisked before being cuffed, and one officer's mustache was made of wax. The second security guard arrived minutes later and was also handcuffed, after which he asked the intruders why he was being arrested. The thieves explained that they were not being arrested, but rather this was a robbery, and proceeded to take the guards to the museum's basement. They handcuffed the guards to pipes and wrapped duct tape around their hands, feet, and heads.
Since the museum was equipped with motion detectors, the thieves' movements throughout the museum were recorded. After tying up the guards, the thieves went upstairs to the Dutch Room. As one of them approached Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1629), a local alarm sounded, which they immediately smashed. They pulled the painting off the wall and attempted to take the wooden panel out of its heavy frame. Unsuccessful at the attempt, they left the painting on the floor. They cut Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee out of the frame, as well as A Lady and Gentleman in Black. They also removed Vermeer's The Concert and Govaert Flinck's Landscape with Obelisk from their frames. Additionally, they also took a Chinese bronze gu from the Shang dynasty.
Elsewhere in the museum, they stole five Degas drawings and an eagle finial. The finial sat at the top of a Napoleonic flag, which they attempted to unscrew from the wall, but failed. Manet's Chez Tortoni was also stolen from its location in the Blue Room. Motion detector records show that the only footsteps detected in the Blue Room that night were at 12:27 a.m. and again at 12:53 a.m. These times match to when Abath said he passed through on patrol. The frame for the painting was found on security chief Lyle W. Grindle's chair near the front desk. The thieves made two trips to their car with artwork during the theft, which lasted 81 minutes. Before leaving, they visited the guards once more, telling them "You'll be hearing from us in about a year," although they were never heard from again. The guards remained handcuffed until police arrived at 8:15 a.m. later that morning.
Altogether, thirteen pieces were stolen at an estimated loss of $500 million, making the robbery the largest recorded private property theft in history. Empty frames remain hanging in the museum, both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for their potential return. One of the paintings, The Concert, was Gardner's first major acquisition and one of only 34 known Vermeer works in the world. It is thought to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting, with a value estimated at over $200 million.[when?] Another painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, is Rembrandt's only known seascape. The bronze finial was taken from the top of a Napoleonic flag, possibly appearing like gold to the thieves. The museum is offering a $100,000 reward for this piece alone.
La Sortie de Pesage
A bronze eagle finial
- The museum believes A Lady and Gentleman in Black to be a Rembrandt; however some scholars, including the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, say it is not.
- Landscape with an Obelisk was formerly attributed to Rembrandt until being associated with his pupil, Flinck.
- This Self-Portrait is postage-stamp sized. Not to be confused with Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1629) oil painting also at the museum, which the thieves attempted to steal but did not take.
- The gu is dated during the Shang dynasty
The Federal Bureau of Investigation took control of the case on the grounds that the artwork would likely cross state lines. They have conducted hundreds of interviews with probes stretching across the world involving Scotland Yard, Japanese and French authorities, private investigators, museum directors, and art dealers. The FBI believes the thieves were members of a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. Some of the art may have been offered for sale in Philadelphia in the early 2000s, including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee; however, their knowledge of what happened to the works after the attempted sale is limited. The FBI stated it believed it knew the identity of the thieves in 2013, but in 2015 announced that they were now deceased. They have declined to identify the individuals.
No single motive or pattern has emerged through the thousands of pages of evidence gathered. The selection of works puzzles the experts, specifically since more valuable artworks were available. The FBI's lead agent assigned to the case, Geoffrey J. Kelly, finds it difficult to understand why this assortment of items was stolen despite the thieves being in the museum for enough time to take whatever they wished. On their way to the finial, the thieves passed by two Raphaels and a Botticelli painting. Titian's The Rape of Europa, which is one of the museum's most well-known and valuable pieces, was not stolen. Due to the brutish ways the criminals handled the robbery, cutting the paintings from their frames and smashing frames for two Degas sketches, investigators believe the thieves were amateur criminals, not experts commissioned to steal particular works. Some investigators believe the works were destroyed, explaining why they have not reappeared. Theories on the theft include that it was organized by the Irish Republican Army in order to raise money or bargain for the release of imprisoned comrades. Another theory states Whitey Bulger was the ringleader of the theft. At the time of the heist, he was Boston's top crime boss and an FBI informant.
The museum first offered a reward of $1 million, but that was later increased to $5 million in 1997. The reward is for "information that leads directly to the recovery of all of [their] items in good condition", which remains on offer more than a quarter-century later. In May 2017, the bounty was doubled to $10 million, with an expiration date set for midnight on December 31 of that year. This reward was extended into 2018 following an outpouring of tips from the public. Federal authorities have stated they will not charge anyone who voluntarily turns in the artwork, but anyone caught knowingly in possession of stolen items could be prosecuted. The thieves cannot face charges because the five-year statute of limitations has expired.
Loss of DNA evidence
In 2010, the FBI announced that some evidence from the original crime scene had been sent to the FBI's Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for retesting with the hope of finding new DNA evidence to identify the culprits of the theft.
In June 2017, The Boston Globe reported that some of the crime scene evidence collected by the FBI was missing. Even after an exhaustive search, they were unable to locate handcuffs and duct tape used to immobilize the museum's two security guards that could have contained traces of the thieves' DNA material.
In 1994, the museum director Anne Hawley received a letter that promised the return of the pieces for $2.6 million. If interested, the museum had to get The Boston Globe to publish a coded message in a business story. The message was published, but nothing further was heard once law enforcement got involved.
Late one night in 1997, Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg was driven to a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn by William Youngworth, a career criminal and associate of New England art thief Myles Connor Jr., to see what was purported to be The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Mashberg had been investigating the theft and was briefly allowed to view the painting with a flashlight. He was given a vial of paint chips for authenticity. These were later confirmed by experts to be fragments of Dutch 17th-century origin—but not from the stolen painting. It was never concretely determined to be real or fake, and the FBI quit dealing with Youngworth after not making any progress. The painting has since disappeared.
On August 6, 2015, police released a video from the night before the theft that is believed to show a dry run of the robbery. Two men appear on the tape: one remains unidentified, while the other has been confirmed as Richard Abath, a security guard on duty the night of the heist. The video appears to show Abath buzzing the unidentified man into the museum twice within a few minutes. The man stayed for about three minutes in the lobby, then returned to a car and drove off. Police say the video opens new lines of investigation, and The New York Times points out that it draws new attention to Abath as a potential collaborator. However, the guards had previously been interviewed and deemed too unimaginative to have pulled off the heist – which is not to say they could not have been collaborators.
In December 2015 FBI agents searched East Boston's Suffolk Downs horse racing track, acting on a tip consistent with rumors among Suffolk Downs employees in the 1990s that the stolen art was there. Stables, parts of the grandstand closed since the early 1990s, and two safes (which had to be drilled open) were searched without result.
Boston gangster Bobby Donati may have been involved in the heist. New England art thief Myles J. Connor Jr., in prison at the time of the robbery, has stated that he and associate Bobby Donati eyed the museum in the 1980s and Donati oversaw the operation. Shortly before the robbery, Donati was seen at a nightclub with a sack of police uniforms. Donati worked under Boston crime boss Vincent Ferrara, and visited him in prison in the early 1990s. When Ferrara asked about the robbery, Donati said he "buried the stuff" and would find a way to negotiate his release. Donati was murdered in 1991 as a result of ongoing gang wars.
Hartford, Connecticut, gangster Robert "Bobby the Cook" Gentile has been suggested on multiple occasions as knowing the location of the Gardner works. In May 2012, FBI agents searched Gentile's home in Manchester, Connecticut. They did not find any stolen works, despite searching his preferred hiding spot beneath a false floor with the help of his son. However, in the basement, they found a sheet of paper listing what each stolen piece might draw on the black market. In January 2016, the FBI contrived gun charges against Gentile to force him to reveal the location of the missing works. During a hearing, a federal prosecutor revealed significant evidence tying Gentile to the crime. The prosecutor stated that Gentile and mob partner Robert Guarente attempted to use the return of two stolen pieces to reduce a prison sentence for one of their associates. Guarente's wife told investigators in early 2015 that her husband once had possession of some of the art, and gave two paintings to Gentile before Guarente died of cancer in 2004. Also, while in federal prison during 2013–2014, Gentile told at least three people he had knowledge of the stolen art. In 2015, Gentile submitted to a lie detector test, denying advanced knowledge of the heist or ever possessing any paintings. The result showed a 0.1% chance that he was truthful. According to Gentile's lawyer, federal agents are convinced that Gentile has the stolen works. Gentile's home was searched again by the FBI on May 2, 2016, even though his lawyer insists that if Gentile had the stolen artwork or knowledge of its whereabouts, he would have turned it in for the reward money a long time ago. On September 5, 2017, Gentile was scheduled to be sentenced for a separate weapons charge in Connecticut.
When the museum raised its bounty in 1997, Myles J. Connor Jr. said he could locate the missing artwork in exchange for legal immunity. Authorities rejected his offer. Connor now believes that the Gardner works have passed into other, unknown hands. "I was probably told, but I don't remember," he said, blaming a heart attack that affected his memory. Louis Royce, another Boston area gangster, claims he is still owed 15% for devising the plan for two fake policemen to request access to the museum at night.
In popular culture
The high profile Gardner Museum theft has been referenced and parodied in many different works. It was the subject of the 2005 documentary Stolen, which first appeared in a slightly different version on Court TV. The more well-known paintings have been referenced in multiple TV shows, including The Blacklist episode "The Courier", The Simpsons episode "American History X-cellent", Drunk History episode "Boston", and American Greed.
Several books were written by former investigators: Artful Deception (2012) by James J. McGovern; Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (2010), by Robert Wittman and John Shiffman; and Stolen Masterpiece Tracker (2006) by Thomas McShane.
Stephen Kurkjian, a reporter for The Boston Globe, has written a book about his experience titled Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist (2015). Journalist Ulrich Boser wrote a book called The Gardner Heist (2009), leaning heavily on the documented investigation of Harold Smith, an insurance underwriter who worked on art cases.
- 1990 in the United States
- Crime in Massachusetts
- List of stolen paintings
- 300 million yen robbery, 1968 theft of cash from armored car in Japan also carried out by a thief posing as a police officer, likewise still unsolved
- Great Brink's Robbery, 1950 theft of $2.7 million in cash and financial instruments, also in Boston, at the time also the largest theft in American history
- John Tillmann, along with his wife and mother-in-law stole over ten thousand pieces of art over decades in largest haul by a single art thief
- 1972 Montreal Museum of Fine Arts robbery, largest art theft and largest theft of private property in Canadian history.
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