Inside Boston’s Unsolved $500 Million Art Heist

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The biggest art theft in history occurred at the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum, in Boston, Massachusetts. On March 18, 1990, two burglars broke into the museum and made off with 13 works of art, worth half a billion dollars. Despite a thorough investigation and several promising leads, the Gardner theft remains unsolved to this day. While the details of the theft have been widely publicized, many folks don’t know much about the history of the museum and the incredible woman who started it all.

Gardner established the popular art museum in Boston to hold her massive and valuable art collection. The museum is home to over 7,500 pieces of art, including paintings, furniture, silver, sculptures, textiles, ceramics and 1,500 rare books. The majority of the masterpieces came from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy and Asia.

Let’s take a look at the events that led to Gardner’s love for art, the museum’s beginnings and the largest art heist in history.  

Stewart Gardner’s Global Upbringing

Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840. Her father, David Stewart, made a living by importing Irish linen. Growing up, she lived in University Place in Manhattan.

When she turned 16, Gardner moved to Paris with her family and completed her education abroad, allowing her to learn firsthand about Renaissance art. In 1858, the family moved back to New York. Shortly after, Gardner went to Boston to visit a former Paris classmate, Julia Gardner. Gardner introduced Stewart Gardner to her brother, John “Jack” Lowell Gardner Jr.

Stewart Gardner’s Marriage and Family Life

Jack Gardner was in the banking business and a member of Boston’s upper class. Two years after Stewart Gardner met Jack Gardner in Boston, the two decided to tie the knot.

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On April 10, 1860, Stewart Gardner and Jack Gardner married at Grace Church in New York City. Stewart Gardner’s father gifted the newlyweds a house at 152 Beacon Street in Boston. The Gardners started a life together in their new Boston home, which was located on the Back Bay’s richest street. Shortly after, the Gardner’s had a son, John Lowell Gardner III, born June 18, 1863. The new parents nicknamed their son “Jackie.”

Stewart Gardner’s Travel to Heal A Broken Heart

In the mid-1860s, a series of unfortunate events struck Stewart Gardner’s life. Her son, Jackie, died from pneumonia at less than two years old in 1865. A year later, Stewart Gardner suffered a near-fatal miscarriage and found out she was unable to have more children. Around the same time, her sister-in-law and close friend, Julia Gardner, passed away.

The terrible news left Isabella Stewart Gardner heartbroken and depressed. On the advice of her doctor, in 1876, the Gardners traveled to Paris, Scandinavia and Russia for a year. During the trip, Stewart Gardner’s health improved and she created scrapbooks of her adventures. 

A Passion For Collecting Art Emerges

Stewart Gardner’s trip to Europe and Russia made her eager to see the rest of the world. In 1874, the Gardners traveled to the Middle East, Europe and Paris. The couple explored America, Europe and Asia in the late 1880s. During their adventures abroad, the couple gained an even greater knowledge of the arts and culture.

The Gardners started collecting art in Europe. When Stewart Gardner inherited $1.75 million from her father, she focused on growing her collection of European fine art. “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer was one of her first purchases. From Egypt to the Far East, the Gardners collected paintings and statues from around the world in the late 1890s. The Gardners also began obtaining tapestries, photographs, silver and manuscripts during their travels. Venice, Italy, became her favorite city to visit because artists frequently visited the Palazzo Barbaro, where the Gardners stayed. She became a regular at the palazzo, spending time with the artists and purchasing art.

She Asked Male Associates to Purchase Art on Her Behalf

Stewart Gardner became known for her massive art collection, but many people didn’t know that her male friends helped her acquire some of her pieces. Art historian Bernard Berenson assisted her in acquiring almost 70 pieces alone. In the 1890s, most art collectors were men; it was rare for women to collect art.

Art curator Christina Nielsen explained the auction process to WBUR, saying, “She has a man bid on her behalf. She sits in the back of the room, and she’s got a handkerchief over her face. Her main competitors were the National Gallery in London and the Louvre that day. And they realized they were bidding against each other — so they did a sort of gentlemanly bowing out. Meanwhile, her agent swooped in and bought the picture and suddenly Isabella Stewart Gardner was a well-known name in the art world overnight.”

Isabella Built the Museum After Her Husband’s Death

By 1896, the Gardners discovered their enormous art collection barely fit in their Boston home. The couple dreamed of building a museum where they could keep their giant collection. However, Jack Gardner suddenly died of a stroke in 1898.

After her husband’s death, Stewart Gardner worked hard to make their dream come true. She bought a piece of land in the Fens of England and hired architect Willard T. Sears to draw up museum models inspired by Venice’s Renaissance architecture. While Sears was in charge of constructing the museum, Stewart Gardner dictated the museum’s design. When construction of the museum was completed in 1901, Gardner moved into the living quarters on the fourth floor and installed her collection throughout the museum portion of the building. 

The Museum’s Artwork Was Deliberately Arranged to Build a Narrative

For a year, Gardner carefully installed each of the items on the first three floors of the museum. Every piece was purposely assembled in different rooms to create a story. Gardner wanted to inspire others to fall in love with the art, rather than simply learn about the art’s history. Some pieces didn’t even provide information about the painter or date of origin.

Gardner placed Titian’s masterpiece “The Rape of Europa” in the Titian Room. The Titian masterpiece sits above a small piece of Stewart Gardner’s pale green silk gown designed by Charles Frederick Worth. In the Dutch Room, Gardner organized famous works by European artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. 

The Museum’s Other Items

Not only did the museum feature famous paintings, but it also presented rare books, manuscripts, furniture, tapestries, sculptures and decorative art pieces from the Gardner’s travels. Many rooms displayed a mixture of these different pieces from various cultures and periods.

The Early Italian Room highlights Italian Gothic and Renaissance art. These paintings are surrounded by furniture and other decorative articles from different periods and cultures across Europe, Egypt, the Middle East and Asia. The Dutch Room includes Italian, Dutch and English pieces such as an Italian nightstand, a Dutch sugar bowl and a Dutch salt cellar.

Artists Spent Time at the Museum

The grand opening of the museum was Jan. 1, 1903. Guests indulged in champagne and donuts while members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed. Scholar Charles Eliot Norton, philosopher William James, and symphony founder Henry Higginson attended the extravagant celebration. On Feb. 23, 1903, she welcomed the public into the museum.

Stewart Gardner also encouraged many artists, performers and scholars to visit the museum, such as John Singer Sargent, Charles Martin Loeffler and Ruth St. Denis. Sargent used the museum’s Gothic Room as a painting studio, while Loeffler posed as his model. Denis danced in the Cloisters, performing her signature piece, The Cobra. Stewart Gardner wanted the artists to find inspiration from her beautiful collection and the museum’s Venetian designs.

Continuing Her Legacy

Stewart Gardner continued to grow her art collection and personally installed the pieces in the museum for the remainder of her life. She passed away July 17, 1924, after suffering a series of strokes. Although Stewart Gardner was no longer living, she still dictated the museum’s future.

According to her will, the museum must remain open “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” It also specifies that nothing in the museum can be sold, relocated or removed. The museum was to be maintained the way she left it, meaning new pieces weren’t allowed either. The collection remained untouched until March 18, 1990 — after 13 pieces valued at $500 million were stolen.

Suspects Arrived in Fake Police Uniforms

As Bostonians celebrated St. Patrick’s Day during the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves sat inside a red Dodge Daytona on Palace Road near the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The two men were disguised as police officers and one of them had on a fake wax mustache.

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For almost an hour, the two criminals waited in their car to avoid the St. Patrick’s Day party goers. As the crowd dispersed, the two thieves began their elaborate plan. They exited their vehicle, walked to the entrance of the museum and pressed the buzzer near the door at 1:24 a.m

A Museum Security Guard Let the Thieves In

The museum had two security guards on duty that night. After the first guard, Richard Abath, patrolled the museum, he came back to the front desk to change positions with the other guard. Abath heard the buzzer and saw two men outside. They told Abath they were police officers who had heard a commotion in the museum’s courtyard, and asked to enter the building.

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Although Abath knew that guards weren’t allowed to open the door to uninvited guests, he wasn’t sure if the protocol also applied to police officers. Abath believed the men because of their uniforms. While the other guard patrolled the galleries, Abath allowed the disguised men to enter

Handcuffed and Tied

The thieves walked to the front desk, where Abath was stationed. One of the intruders told Abath his face seemed familiar and that there was a warrant for his arrest. Abath, confused, left the front desk area, where the only alarm button was located. The thieves immediately forced Abath to face the wall and handcuffed him. Abath thought the arrest was a mistake, but quickly noticed the intruders didn’t search him before putting him in handcuffs. He also realized one of the thieves wore a fake mustache.

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A few minutes later, Abath’s partner returned to the front desk and the thieves handcuffed him, too. The thieves then revealed they came to rob the museum. The robbers took the guards to the basement, where they handcuffed them to pipes and wrapped their heads, hands, and feet with duct tape. The criminals moved on to the galleries to start their heist.

81 Minutes to Complete the Largest Theft in History

The museum’s motion detectors recorded the thieves’ movements. First, the robbers entered the Dutch Room and approached Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” but the local alarm went off. The thieves smashed the alarm. After taking the “Self-Portrait” off the wall, the two men unsuccessfully tried to remove the painting from its wooden panel. They left the painting on the floor instead.

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The thieves went on to cut Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” from the frames. Next, they took Vermeer’s “The Concert” and Govaert Flinck’s “Landscape with an Obelisk.” The criminals stole a total of 13 pieces throughout the museum including a Chinese Bronze Gu, five Degas drawings, and an eagle finial. The robbery occurred in 81 minutes. At 8:15 a.m., police arrived at the scene and found the guards tied up in the basement. 

The FBI Found No Motive or Pattern

Believing that the stolen pieces would cross state lines, the FBI quickly took over the case. The FBI thought the perpetrators were part of a criminal organization from the mid-Atlantic and New England. Throughout the investigation, the FBI held hundreds of interviews including with American drug lords and former museum guards.

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In addition, the FBI worked with many specialists, including top private investigators, Japanese and French authorities, museum directors and art dealers. Although the FBI collected over a thousand pages of evidence, the investigation uncovered no single motive or pattern. The FBI agent in charge of the Stewart Gardner case, Geoffrey J. Kelly, has mentioned that the FBI knew the identities of the criminals, but Kelly didn’t say if the suspects remained dead or alive. Kelly has provided no further comment on the identities. 

A Few Theories About the Art Heist Have Surfaced

One theory investigated by the FBI was that the heist was planned and carried out by the Irish Republican Army, with the goal of eventually leveraging information to release their members from prison. A different theory suggested Boston’s top crime boss, Whitey Bulgar, organized the robbery. The FBI also had a theory that Myles J. Connor Jr. arranged the crime before he became New England’s top art thief.

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In 2009, the Stewart Gardner Museum’s director of security, Anthony Amore, heard a strange rumor. Amore said, “One bizarre theory was from people who say Mrs. Gardner speaks to them and tells them who stole the paintings. Also, others say mythical figures have spoken to them about the thefts.”

One of the Main Suspects Was Boston Gangster Robert Donati

Boston gangster Robert “Bobby” Donati became the FBI’s top suspect during the investigation. In 1997, Connor claimed Donati was his accomplice in organizing the Gardner robbery. Connor and Donati visited the museum together a few times before the theft. Also before the robbery, Donati went to a nightclub called The Shack, where he was seen carrying a bag of police uniforms.

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During the 1990 robbery, Connor remained in prison, but he said Donati managed the heist. In 1991, Donati was murdered. According to the New York Daily News, he may have been a victim in a gang war. The FBI eventually threw out Donati as a lead suspect. 

Another Main Suspect Was Robert “Bobby the Cook” Gentile

Gangster Robert “Bobby the Cook” Gentile was also on the FBI’s radar as a possible suspect. The FBI believed he held some of the paintings from the Gardner Museum heist. In 2012, the FBI raided his home in Manchester, Connecticut, after the FBI brought drug charges against Gentile. The FBI found nothing in the raid except for a list of how much each stolen piece would cost on the black market. However, Gentile said he was innocent and knew nothing about the robbery.

Later in 2016, the FBI filed gun charges against Gentile to force him to talk about the location of the stolen art pieces. The federal prosecutor, John H. Durham, claimed Gentile and his mob partner Robert Guarente attempted to return two stolen artworks to reduce a prison sentence for one of Guarente’s associates. Also, Guarente’s wife insisted Gentile possessed a few of the stolen paintings. Gentile’s lawyer argued against these claims and said that Gentile didn’t know anything about the heist. In 2018, Gentile was sentenced to 54 months in prison on gun charges, but still hasn’t admitted to any knowledge about the whereabouts of the paintings. 

A Few Leads Included a Letter and a New Video

In 1994, museum director Anne Hawley received a letter that assured the return of the stolen pieces for $2.6 million. The letter writer demanded that the museum get The Boston Globe to print a coded message in the business section. Although the paper published the message, the mysterious writer disappeared after learning law enforcement were involved.

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On Aug. 6, 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office released a video that was taped the night before the heist at the Gardner Museum. On the six-minute video, two men appear at the entrance of the museum. One man was identified as Abath, the security guard who was tied up during the robbery. The other man remains unknown. Authorities have asked for the public’s help to identify him in the footage. The video shows Abath buzzing the unidentified man into the museum twice. The man stayed in the lobby for a couple of minutes, exited and left in a car. 

DNA Collected at The Crime Scene Went Missing

After the robbery in 1990, police collected traces of DNA from the duct tape and handcuffs that the thieves used to hold the museum’s security guards. In 2010, the FBI wanted to retest the evidence due to recent improvements in DNA analysis, hoping the new test would help find the thieves. However, the evidence containing the DNA had disappeared.

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The FBI conducted a search for the crime scene evidence, but it was nowhere to be found. Investigators don’t know when the evidence went missing, but anonymous sources claimed the evidence had been gone for over a decade. The FBI also doesn’t know if the items were misplaced, stolen or disposed of. The missing evidence became another setback for the Stewart Gardner case, which remains unsolved to this day. 

A True-Crime Podcast Investigated the Unsolved Art Heist Mystery

In 2018, WBUR, a public radio station, collaborated with The Boston Globe to produce a 10-part podcast covering the art heist mystery. The podcast, “Last Seen,” covers the robbery, the suspects, people connected to the case and the FBI’s investigation.

The team, led by WBUR members Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, researched the mystery for a year. The podcast features many interviews, including one with security guard Abath and his partner from the night of the crime. The museum’s director of security, Amore, says, “Things like this podcast that can reach a large audience are important for keeping the story alive in people’s minds and reminding the public that we’re never going to stop looking for the stolen art.”

A Documentary and Book Covering the Crime Was Released

In 2005, a documentary film called “Stolen” by Rebecca Dreyfus featured the famous heist. The documentary follows art detective, Harold Smith, as he looks into the robbery’s investigation and the 13 seized pieces. Smith chats with contemporary authors about Stewart Gardner’s reputation as a famous art connoisseur and the works of Dutch painter Vermeer.

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum printed a pictorial book also named “Stolen” in 2018. “Stolen” provides information about the 13 stolen works of art and contains essays from key staff members including Amore and Nielsen. Museum guests frequently ask for more details on the missing pieces, which inspired the museum to produce “Stolen.” 

The Famous Heist Is Mentioned Throughout Pop Culture

Many TV shows have featured the crime, including “The Black List,” “The Simpsons” and “Drunk History.” In “The Black List,” the episode “The Courier” features a criminal named Raymond Reddington looking at Rembrandt’s painting “Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

“The Simpsons” has an episode in which Mr. Burns possesses stolen art from the Stewart Gardner Museum at Burns Manor. As a result, the police arrest Mr. Burns and throw him in prison. In “Drunk History,” the episode “Boston” features two criminals struggling to steal art and doing whatever they can to complete the heist.

Some of the Stolen Paintings

Govaert Flinck’s “Landscape with an Obelisk” from 1638 is one of the stolen works of art. The robbers took Flinck’s painting from the museum’s Dutch Room. Many art enthusiasts initially believed the picture belonged to the painter Rembrandt, but they later learned Flinck was the owner. Dutch painter Flinck was actually a student of Rembrandt, who helped influence his work.

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Flinck created “Landscape with an Obelisk” using oil on wood. The beautiful painting features a stormy day, a fantasy landscape and an obelisk inspired by one that’s near Amsterdam. The picture also includes a bridge and a small man on a horse. 

The Painting “Chez Tortoni” Was Another Missing Piece

Another missing painting is Édouard Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” from around 1875. The museum’s Blue Room used to hold Manet’s famous artwork. Manet was known to create paintings in cafes that resembled snapshots.

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Manet’s painting illustrates a young man with a mustache and a top hat sitting in the Café Tortoni de Paris. The man is holding a pencil in his hand and writing on paper. The man’s eyes are positioned looking directly at the piece’s viewer. Additionally, a glass of wine sits on the gentleman’s table. WBUR describes the picture’s brush strokes as broad and tactile.

“La Sortie de Pesage” and “Three Mounted Jockeys” by Degas Were Stolen

Several Edgar Degas works disappeared in the heist, including “La Sortie de Pesage” and “Three Mounted Jockeys.” These two paintings used to hang in the museum’s Short Gallery. Degas, a French artist, was popular for drawing dancers, but in “La Sortie de Pesage” he illustrated a crowd of people, a jockey and a horse using pencil and watercolor. No one knows when Degas created “La Sortie de Pesage.”

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The thieves also stole the Degas painting “Three Mounted Jockeys” from around 1885. Degas created the piece with black ink and oil pigments. While one jockey sits upright on a horse, the other two jockeys are upside down in the painting. 

“Program for an Artistic Soirée” One and Two Were Taken

A couple more Degas works that vanished include “Program for an Artistic Soirée” and “Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2” from 1884. The criminals removed these Degas drawings from the Short Gallery’s cabinets. Stewart Gardner had assembled the cabinets herself to showcase the artwork.

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Degas sketched the drawings with charcoal on white paper, which features the skirt and legs of a dancer. The drawing also includes a woman holding an open booklet and a man in a hat and wig next to a musical instrument. The second “Program for an Artistic Soiree” appears more finished than the first sketch.

“Cortège aux Environs de Florence” and a Few Works By Rembrandt

Yet another Degas, the sketch “Cortege aux Environs de Florence” and a few Rembrandt works were also stolen. “Cortege aux Environs de Florence” used to be displayed in the Short Gallery. Degas drew the artwork with a pencil and used a sepia wash on paper. The sketch illustrates a carriage with horses, a woman with a giant umbrella and three women who may be dancing. He finished this sketch around 1857.

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Other missing works include Rembrandt’s “A Lady And Gentleman In Black” and his most famous painting “Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee” from 1633. The criminals stole both paintings from the museum’s Dutch Room. The thieves also made off with his tiny sketch titled “Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man” from 1633. The sketch features Rembrandt’s serious face with untidy hair. The thieves attempted to seize Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” oil painting, but the job was unsuccessful.

The Thieves Also Took a Gu, a Finial and Vermeer’s “The Concert”

From the museum’s Dutch Room, the criminals made off with a Chinese Gu (a bronze beaker) from 12th century BC. According to WBUR, the Gu was one of the most elegant and oldest pieces in the museum. Another item removed from the museum was the bronze French Eagle finial from around 1813. The eagle was attached to a flagpole from Napoleon’s First Regiment of Imperial Guard. Although the eagle is gone, the flag remains in the museum.

WBUR reports that Vermeer’s “The Concert” is the rarest and most valuable of the stolen works because few of his paintings exist. Vermeer’s painting is priced at $200 million. “The Concert” features three musicians surrounding a piano and a black-and-white tiled floor.

The Museum and FBI Are Still Looking for New Leads

Although the Gardner case collected some promising leads, the identities of the criminals and the whereabouts of the 13 pieces remain a mystery. To this day, empty frames of the missing paintings hang on the walls. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hopes that the stolen pieces will one day be returned. Currently, the museum is offering a $10 million reward for information that can help recover the stolen pieces.

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The FBI, the museum and the U.S. attorney’s office continue to search for new leads. The museum encourages anyone with information to reach out to the Stewart Gardner Museum. The museum’s director says “I’ve spent more than a decade preparing for any scenario. I’m very ready. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll meet with the devil for these paintings.”