Solve the Gardner Museum Art Heist
In many ways the dutch room Boston Transportation Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is typical: lit by arched Venetian windows overlooking a leafy inner courtyard, and tastefully decorated with Gardner’s handpicked collection. Between period chairs and cupboards, candelabra and other trinkets, European portraits play dramatically with light and shadow. closer to the entrance, a solitary Rembrandt look outside. It is one of the first self-portraits painted at only 23 years old, a filmy scarf around her neck, a textured feather hanging from her fluffy cap. It was the painting that inspired the entire museum – after acquiring it, Gardner focused on buying masterpieces, in 1898 turning a former swamp into a palace for her prizes.
But this is where things get weird. On the wall opposite the Rembrandt are two large empty frames, displaying nothing but the satin baroque wallpaper underneath. To the right, another set of empty picture frames sit back to back on a desk. On the left, a stamp-sized void beckons from the side of a cabinet.
On maudlin fiddle stumps on the audioguided tourmuseum security director Anthony Amore explains the scene: “You are about to hear the story of a horrific robbery that has deprived the Gardner Museum – and you, the public – of some of the greatest masterpieces of America.”
Prestigious paintings once stood in these empty frames; they are now the remnants of an infamous crime. This robbery-centric tour follows in the footsteps of the duo who committed it, with intimate details of the night.
And there’s a bonus: if visitors realize they have evidence to help recover the art, it could mean a whopping $10 million reward.
You may have heard the story before, in the dozens of newspaper articles, the WBUR Podcast and Boston Globe 2018 for the last timeor maybe Netflix’s 2021 four-part documentary, It’s a flight. And if you’re from Boston, chances are you can recite the basics by heart. In the wee hours after St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, March 18, 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum fell victim to the greatest art theft in modern history. Unlike the movies, the thieves didn’t fall from the ceiling, rappel down walls, or even shut down alarm systems with advanced hacking techniques. These guys? They just walked in.
At 1:24 a.m., two men posing as Boston police officers — with mustaches — announced themselves over the outside intercom, claiming to be responding to reports of a disturbance. After getting buzzed (against protocol), they overpowered two young security guards, randomly taped their eyes and mouths, and handcuffed them to pipes in the basement. Then they got to work.
13 coins were raised that night, including two Rembrandts, a Vermeer, six Degas sketches and a Manet, weighing a total of $500 million. The case is still unsolved, but if you’re the one helping solve it, you might consider this $10 million reward.
Launched in 2020, flight museum audio tour commemorates the 30th anniversary of the crime, aiming to keep the details fresh in the public’s mind in hopes of finally making an arrest. Practical, of course. But it’s also ridiculously fun. With a route obtained from triggered motion sensors, guests retrace the steps of the crooks, roaming the museum in search of specific pieces while taking note of the treasures found along the way.
If you are looking to learn more about this legendary night, you will find plenty of information to quench your curiosity. But if you just want to know what it’s like to rob a museum and get away with the robbery of the century, consider this your immersive playbook.
Amore’s voice is sure but desperate as he narrates. Hired in 2005, it’s his main job to solve this baffling case. Waves crash in the background as he details what the first large frame lacks: Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm in the Sea of Galilee.
It is Rembrandt’s only seascape. But beyond that, it’s simply fascinating. The sky is boiling, the sea chaotic. The men hang on for their lives. And in the middle of the work a familiar face – Rembrandt painted himself, calmly watching from the ship. If the painting still hung where it should, the artist would make eye contact with his 23-year-old self-portrait across the room.
The other large frame once held another Rembrandt, this one a portrait of a couple. As described in the audio, the thieves placed the two pieces on the ground and roughly cut the paintings from their frames. “There are deep nicks in the wooden supports around the edges of the canvas,” Amore continues. “They leave those supports behind. It really is a gruesome crime scene.
When people talk about this theft, they usually point to two coins as the biggest losses. One is Galileo. The second is Vermeer’s mystery The concert, since only 36 of his works are still intact today. In the Dutch Room, the painting’s empty shell sits to the side atop a desk. With her, the thieves were unnecessarily dramatic, dragging her to the middle of the room, turning her face down and, after removing the canvas, letting the rest crash to the floor. Crime scene photos show the frame lying on the ground, surrounded by broken glass.
After an incongruous pause to argue over a 12th century chinese bronze vesselthen by unscrewing a small Rembrandt engraving of its casing it’s through the lobby – dark after hours – past the museum First Italian room and vibrant, with red walls Raphael Room, completely ignoring the works of the Renaissance master. The small gallery then came, where they released Napoleonic Eagle by Pierre-Philippe Thomire alongside five drawings by the French impressionist Edgar Degas.
Then finally, go back down the stairs to the blue room. It is assumed that at 2:45 a.m. the thieves removed At Tortoni, a portrait by Édouard Manet of a dapper man wearing a top hat. (No alarm was triggered, making it impossible to know the exact time he disappeared.) After taking him, the intruders left the frame empty on the security desk.
The getaway lasted 81 minutes. To put that into perspective, most art heists last about three minutes from start to finish. But don’t worry, the abbreviated tour only lasts about 22 hours.
There have been theories about who did it, of course. Plenty of evidence points to inside work: free time spent, knowledge of secret passages, and route accuracy. Band work on one of the guards, music student Rick Abath– the same one that buzzed in the looters – was hilariously inefficient. Abath also reportedly had beef with the head of security, so leaving that last frame on the desk would have been a particularly telling touch.
Noted Art Thief Myles Connor aroused suspicion – his repertoire includes a stolen Rembrandt and in an interview he admitted to trashing the museum and fantasizing about cutting the 12th century Chinese vase. There is also the screenwriter Brian Michael McDevitt, a North Shore kid who posed as a Vanderbilt and attempted a similar robbery in Glens Falls, New York. These were the first fingerprints sent to the FBI for comparison after the Gardner heist.
Many theories revolve around the mob, where, for better or worse, all the suspects are dead. Recently, however, Amore says to Boston 25 as they look into the cold case of the murder of a mobster named Jimmy Marks who was shot in 1991. A tipster told investigators that Marks bragged that not only was he in possession of some of the stolen artwork, but that he had hidden it.
Some solid evidence, but, alas, no recovered paintings. That’s where you and this immersive walking tour come in. Three decades later, the thieves still haven’t come forward, but there are generations of museum visitors who may have seen the stolen goods in passing. Maybe someone will hear Amore’s poetry about At Tortoni and say, “Hey, that guy in the top hat is hanging over my grandma’s couch.” Or maybe they’ll finally understand why their uncle insists on showing the same 10-inch bronze eagle at every family gathering (that Napoleonic flagship, by the way, comes with its own separate $100,000 reward). Visitors with information about stolen works of art are encouraged to contact Amore at 617-278-5114 or by email at [email protected]
Either way, pretending to pull off the world’s greatest art heist is a pretty fun way to spend an afternoon. Especially when you manage to waltz through the front doors afterwards without facing a single consequence. Sort of like thieves…for now.