Inside Boston's Unsolved $500 Million Art Heist
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.
Despite her larger than life personality, Isabella was a little camera shy! In a letter to Edmund Hill, she wrote: “I am never photographed, unless by some Kodak fiend, who does it on the sly, & without my permission.” pic.twitter.com/Nfm3bSElHU— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) November 25, 2018
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.
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.
#OnThisDay in 1886, Henry James introduced Isabella to John Singer Sargent in London, where she visited his studio to view his infamous portrait, “Madame X.” This introduction would lead to a long and storied friendship! Image: https://t.co/vis3ymRP2B pic.twitter.com/nI5SPlnkXX— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) October 28, 2018
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.
If it wasn’t obvious enough by the Venetian-inspired Courtyard, Isabella had a real passion for Venice. Translated from Italian, she wrote, “The countryside comforts me but Venice is the only one who can make me happy. Oh blessed Venice I do not want to ever leave you.” pic.twitter.com/pQ0qQB6JHb— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) August 26, 2018
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.
Isabella had too much presence for just one name! She was often referred to in the Boston society pages as “Belle,” “Donna Isabella,” “Isabella of Boston,” or “Mrs. Jack.” pic.twitter.com/it3XqRZ1Fr— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) June 24, 2018
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.
It’s that time of the week! Every Thursday we’re open until 9 pm, so you night owls can experience the Gardner Museum under the stars. Bring a friend and join us tonight for a Gardner getaway! ? pic.twitter.com/jr4xYAS7t5— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) March 29, 2018
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.
Isabella thought the painting on the right (Juana of Austria and a Young Girl) was a Titian and therefore hung it in the Titian room. Although not by him, it was painted at the same time that his Europa painting arrived at the Spanish court. Image: https://t.co/T04XmHhax6 pic.twitter.com/SVPvRwsa11— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) April 18, 2018
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.
Looking for a way to ease into the weekend? Stop by the Museum after work, we're open late on Thursdays! pic.twitter.com/Tn6DrBdQ3i— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) January 31, 2019
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.
Chase away those winter blues at the Gardner — we've planned a night of Caribbean music, dance, and carnival costume-making for tonight's Third Thursdays event: https://t.co/03h8Z7qJk5 pic.twitter.com/R31qYm4uUW— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) January 17, 2019
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.
#FunFact: The vibrant red walls of the second floor’s Raphael Room come from not one damask, but rather a patchwork of boldly-patterned fragments sewn together and stretched across the walls. During your next visit, see if you can see the variations! pic.twitter.com/tUouhw70UJ— Gardner Museum (@gardnermuseum) December 5, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“Program for an Artistic Soirée” One and Two Were Taken
“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.
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.
Fearful until the final moments of #LastSeen that I was hearing the deeply eerie soundtrack for the last time...until the words "more episodes" were uttered. Safe to say, though, that @kellyahoran is not a fan of the missing Bronze Eagle Finial. https://t.co/0OQxQIDaAG #podcast pic.twitter.com/r4a7EaXSuf— Jann Alexander (@AustinDetails) November 19, 2018
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.