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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Mystery of the Boston Art Heist – $500m in Stolen Art

 

The Boston Art Heist

 

It was dubbed “heist of the century”: A duo of thieves stole numerous classic pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The stolen works included works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas.

However, more than twenty-five years later, zero arrests have been made and none of the missing pieces have been recovered.

So, who did it and how did it happen?

The Surprising Visitors

In the year 1990 on March 18, at 1:24 AM, two men posing as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston – they told museum security that they were responding to a late-night disruption and politely asked to be let in.

The guards allowed the policemen in through the employee entrance – the police officers turned out to be art thieves.

After handcuffing the two guards, the thieves ransacked the museum that philanthropist Isabella S. Gardner had opened in 1903 as a kind gift to the people of Boston.

What happened during the Boston Art Heist

The thieves’ movements through the premises were recorded on infrared motion detectors. 

Steps in the first room they entered, the Dutch Room on the second level, were not recorded until 1:48 a.m. 

This was 13 minutes after they had dealt with the guards, as they were most likely waiting to make sure no police were alerted.

As the duo approached the paintings in said room, a device that would normally tip off when a patron was too close to a painting, began beeping.

The thieves destroyed it.

At 1:51 AM, while one thief tirelessly worked in the Dutch Room, his accomplice entered a narrow hallway called the Short Gallery, on the other end of the second level.

The other thief joined soon.

The last work stolen was from the Blue Room on the first level of the museum.

The museum’s motion detectors failed to detect any motion within the Blue Room while the thieves’ were in the building.  

The only footsteps detected in the room that faithful night was the guards during the two times he passed through the gallery on his regular patrol prior to the event of the heist.

The thieves mercilessly smashed gilded frames onto the museum’s marble floors and roughly cut canvasses out from their wooden backings.

They left an empty frame on the desk chair of the museum’s own security director, after which, they got rid of the tape showing all they had done in the museum.

boston art heist

The thieves brought the Gardner Museum pieces out to their vehicle in two trips.

The police did not arrive to investigate as they were unaware of the whole ordeal.

They release the handcuffed guards 8:15 AM the following morning.

The damage as a result of the Boston Art Heist

The Boston art heist lasted roughly 81 minutes.

In a matter of a mere hour and 20 minutes, $500 million worth of art was stolen in the Gardner Museum heist — and nearly thirty years after, the items remain “lost”.

The pieces in question are Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” as well as Vermeer’s “The Concert” and Govaert Flinck’s “Landscape with Obelisk”.

The thieves also snatched a Chinese bronze vessel, precisely a Gu, from the Shang dynasty, Manet’s “Chez Tortoni”, and five Degas drawings.

After an unsuccessful attempt at unscrewing a Napoleonic flag from the wall, they took the eagle finial displayed above it instead.

Who was responsible for the Boston art heist?

After the unbelievable break-in, the famed Boston Globe reported experts speculated that the treasures “were most likely contracted for- in advance by a black-market collector abroad.”

Drug cartels, Irish Republican Army militants and absurdly, even Vatican personnel were deemed as suspects.

Suspicion also fell on notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, but he was on the lookout for whoever committed the crime on his “turf” as well so that he could exact a cut.

The FBI investigated the only person that was tracked by motion sensors in the gallery from which the Manet was swiped, the museum guard- Richard Abath, but this did not yield any answers.

For over two decades, leads continued to prove false, and the case grew cold and stale.

Among a plethora of imaginative theories, some say it was most likely a mafia job, others think the security guards were on the side of the criminals.

In 2015 a reporter from The Guardian, Jonathan Jones asked: “Is America’s greatest art heist about to be solved?” speaking in regards to a security video released by the police showing a rehearsal of the robbery the previous day.

The role of one security guard, Richard Abath, who could have probably been part of the glorious heist, is also questioned.

According to a different theory – the heist was carried out by two petty criminals, one by the name of Myles Connor, a rock musician taken in custody for an art heist in 1975, who offered the art’s return in 1997 through an associate named William Youngsworth.

A representative from the Boston Herald was welcomed to see the stolen art that year in a warehouse, but its authenticity was suspected and Youngsworth was later ruled out as a suspect.

Where is the Art from the Boston art heist?

As of late, the Federal Bureau of Intelligence has been focusing on Robert Gentile, a small-time mafia member who was offered a pardon if he offered the pieces back.

Gentile has stated that he does not know the whereabouts of the art.

He was arrested and incarcerated on unrelated charges involving weapons, but it did little to pull out any new and incriminating information from him regarding the Gardner heist.

Gentile was recently released due to good behavior after serving thirty-five months of his sentence, in March 2019  and it remains a mystery whether the old and withering gangster will share any information that may be useful to help authorities finally solve the baffling case of the Gardner heist.

 

Impact

The statute of limitations for the heist has run out in 1995, and authorities have stated that they are willing to offer immunity for possession of the stolen property if the priceless pieces are returned.

A reward is still being offered to this day.

This heist has served as a wake-up call for museums worldwide, discreetly urging them to amp up their security to prevent another loss such as this one.

 

Since Gardner’s death, her museum has been eternally preserved, with her extensive will mandating that none of the pieces could be misplaced from the exact and precise location where she had placed them.

Following 25 years, the Dutch Room has been untouched as well with the four tragically empty frames hanging from the wall, reminders of the loss for art connoisseurs, but also hopeful symbols that the paintings will someday return.

Cite this article as: Hayden Chakra, "The Mystery of the Boston Art Heist – $500m in Stolen Art," in About History, May 6, 2020, https://about-history.com/boston-art-heist/.

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