Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art Heist gets another narrative in new Netflix docuseries

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After more than 30 years, the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum burglary has all the attributes of a spectacular drama about a real crime. The thief’s disguises, thugs and missing artwork valued at over $ 500 million have captivated and baffled law enforcement, journalists, book authors and podcast hosts. Yet no matter how many people look into the facts, the crime remains unsolved.

The new four-part Netflix docuseries “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” which premieres April 7, isn’t expected to put anyone behind bars anytime soon. But it will potentially introduce a new audience to the remarkable event and its seemingly endless number of weird characters and rabbit hole theories. Besides getting an entertaining fix and then spending the night, the hope of another Gardner tale, one presumes, is that the show could finally get someone who knows something to talk.

Told in four “chapters” of over 50 minutes, the first tells the story of the crime through a combination of dramatization, archival photographs, television news footage and ongoing interviews. At a minimum, the visual juxtaposition of yesterday and today serves as a stark reminder of the time that has passed. The people originally involved in the case have retired; suspects were murdered or died of natural causes. Even the boxy cars and clunky technology (convincingly portrayed in the scenes staged by the Berkshire Theater Group) suggest it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of sleuths who are getting closer with each passing year.

The series opens with witnesses who say they saw two men dressed as Boston police officers sitting in a hatchback on Palace Road just outside the museum in the wee hours of March 18, 1990. A scene recreated shows the “officers” entered by telling museum security guard Richard Abath that they were investigating a disturbance. After handcuffing and blindfolding Abath and another guard, the thieves moved between the galleries for over an hour, littering the floor with broken glass and emptying the golden frames. A total of 13 pieces left the venue that night, including Rembrandt’s unique Seascape (“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee”) and a Vermeer (“The Concert”), precious for its stunning sound. use of light and the limited number of his paintings in circulation.

While the first chapter drops several suspicious seeds to nurture later in the series, it does so impartially, without the thrilling music or sticky storytelling that makes other true crime dramas feel forced (strangely, both appear in the trailer). Instead, and preferably, it allows interviewees to showcase the museum’s intimidating Italian-inspired architecture, the incomparably arranged collection and the mastermind behind it, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Other reports on the heists, such as WBUR and The Boston Globe’s in depth Last seen podcast of 2018, gave him the same respect.

After a year without an actual gallery tour, seeing the interior of the museum was surprisingly poignant. So is Anne Hawley, former director of the Gardner and lead interviewee who recaps the crime and briefly points out that she is the first woman to oversee the world-class museum. She took the reins just six months before the heist, and footage presumably filmed the next morning shows her in shock. What a plate she was served and what a life she gave to the Gardner during her 25-year tenure.

Not all true crime aficionados will patiently wait for the juiciest stuff from who did it and why. The second chapter gets bogged down somewhat trying to explore the vulnerabilities of the museum and the more obvious theory that, like the majority of art thefts, this was internal work. For this reason, Abath always has sidelong glances. (Okay, he would go to work stoned sometimes, and photos from that night show him with long, curly hair, a tie-dyed t-shirt and a fanny pack, ready to attend a Grateful Dead concert.) former colleague Net describes him as the “type of hippie who’s good at chess,” a combo as overwhelming as the one who let thieves in. The series spices up with absurd humor.

Anne Hawley, Director Emeritus of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, shown at a post-theft press conference in an image from “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist”. (Courtesy of Netflix)

No charges have ever been laid against Abath for this crime and the series sidesteps the dramatic potential to convey the terror he and his guard mate must have felt that night. (The other guard does not appear and often refuses interviews.) Although chapter two points out a number of peculiarities of the case (such as the disappearance of the duct tape used on the guards), this did not please me. left hanging as I hope to watch serial programs. I rarely want to hold my hand, but at the time it felt necessary.

Chapter Three redeemed that desire with a captivating glimpse into the range of known criminals with Mafia connections who have at one time or another been in the circle of heist suspects. The last chapter narrows down that list. There is a suggestion that in order to resolve this matter the answers must be found among the living. Once again, I found myself wanting something that I don’t usually have, a tidier ending like one of those pesky reporter ambush scenes that catch a suspect in his robe, searching for the newspaper. in the morning.

Series director Colin Barnicle, who produced “This Is a Robbery” through his production company he started with his brother Nick Barnicle, told The Berkshire Eagle that he has been working on the series for five or six. years. (The brothers also produced “Billy Joel: New York State of Mind,” a chronicle of the singer’s sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.) For this series, Barnicle used comments from several current and former Boston Globe reporters. , including Stephen Kurkjian. , who wrote “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist” and was a consultant producer on “Last Seen”. Globe’s parent company CEO Linda Pizzuti Henry was executive producer of the Netflix series.

Without making any shocking discoveries, “This Is a Robbery” offers a glimpse into what has happened then and since and may lead some viewers to further research. At this point, the heist has become a staple in Boston lore. As always, Boston can’t shake the lure of its history of white gangsters, especially when Irish and Italian crowds clash with each other or with elite institutions. With theories like these in the mix, the Gardner Heist story finds people unwittingly rooted for criminals, or art, or maybe both. We may never know exactly what happened that morning on Palace Road. But the mystery of the heist proved to be both intoxicating and enduring.


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