Boston has a lot of cool history. Even if you don't feel like you know very much about Boston, you still probably already knew that. This was the city where the Revolutionary War started! The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Midnight Ride, the Salem Witch Trials—the early history of the Boston area is rich with some of the most riveting stories that American history has to offer. And moving into the modern era, Boston still managed to be the site of some of America's most interesting historical sagas, from the Boston Strangler, to the Great Molasses Flood. However, to me, one story stands out above the rest, and it didn't happen all that long ago.
The story I'm talking about is the heist of the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum, which happened in 1990.
This heist saw the loss of 13 pieces, worth a combined value of approximately $500 million, making it arguably the most significant art theft in history, as well as the largest theft of private property ever. It should also be noted that the museum is still offering a $10 million reward for the safe return of these pieces.
But before we get into all the juicy details, let me fill you in on what the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is...
The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum: A Quick History
Anybody care to wager a guess as to who the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum is named after?
If you guessed Isabella Stewart Gardner, you were correct. Give yourself a pat on the back. Isabella Stewart Gardner lived from 1840 to 1924. She was born to a wealthy family in New York City, and moved with them to Paris at the age of 16. She would return the U.S. (Boston) at the age of 18 and promptly marry one John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, who was three years older than her. A few years later, Isabella was pregnant with a baby boy. He was named John Lowell Gardner III ("Jackie"), and he died of pneumonia at the age of 2. Isabella tried to have another child, but suffered a miscarriage, after which doctors promptly told her that she would not be able to bear any more children. And if all that wasn’t enough, she had a sister-in-law and a close friend also die around this same time. Understandably, Isabella became extremely depressed. Before long, she was completely withdrawn from society.
That’s when the doctors recommended that Jack take her on an extended trip to Europe. They spent almost a year back in Paris, with excursions to parts of Scandinavia and Russia as well. Turned out that bit of travel worked wonders for her, because by the time she returned home to Boston she was, once again, full of life. She began a new life as one of Boston’s most eccentric socialites, setting sail soon after to travel through Asia, the Middle East, and more of Europe. This is when she began collecting art.
With each trip and each new destination, Jack and Isabella’s home in Bay Bay gradually began to fill up with art. It was clear that they needed more space to accommodate their ever-expanding collection. And then, Isabella’s husband Jack died suddenly in 1898. In her grief, she realized that she and Jack had a shared dream of creating a museum to house their many pieces of art. So she decided to build one.
She bought a sizable patch of land in the Fenway area and hired an architect to oversee the construction of what would be known as Fenway manor. It was modeled after the Renaissance era palaces that she so loved in Venice (which was her favorite travel destination). After the museum was complete, it took a full year to move everything into the giant estate. And the last thing that she moved into the museum was herself. She lived on the 4th floor of the lavish estate, and held a private grand opening party in 1903.
She lived in the museum until her death at the age of 84. She left behind 7500+ paintings, sculptures, ceramics, etc., 1500+ rare books, and 7000+ historical objects from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, East Asia, the Islamic world, and beyond. This includes works by artists such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, and Degas. I’ve been unable to get a solid number on the total value of this collection, but it’s well into the billions.
Yes, BILLIONS of dollars worth of art. So on that note, let’s get to the heist.
The Story Of The Heist
If you know much about Boston, you probably know that it is, historically, very Irish. Every March 17, Boston goes all out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with parties, parades, and obscene amounts of alcohol, giving even Ireland itself a run for its money (I assume).
Anyway, it was St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. Or, at this point it actually would have been in the wee hours of the morning, March 18. Most of Boston was out still out drinking. At 1:24am, 2 police officers rang the buzzer of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, telling the night guard through the intercom that they were responding to a disturbance call. So the night guard let them in.
Once inside, the officers approached the front desk, remarking that the security guard looked familiar. They then informed the guard that there was a warrant out for his arrest, and began the process of arresting him. They had him stand up, face the wall, and then put handcuffs on him. Somewhere in the midst of being arrested, the guard noticed that one of these “officers” was wearing a fake mustache. And aside from that, there were other elements of what was happening that felt a bit fishy.
That’s about when the other night security guard walked up. The officers “arrested” him as well. Once security guard #2 was cuffed, he asked what he was being arrested for. That’s when the police officers explained that they were not actually police officers—they were there to rob the museum. Their exact words were, “You’re not being arrested, this is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.”
The guard apparently replied, “Don’t worry, they don’t pay me enough to get hurt.”
From there they locked the guards in the basement of the museum, cuffing them to pipes and wrapping duct tape around their legs, hands, and entire heads (they poked nose holes so the guards could breathe).
With the guards out of the way, the robbers had the museum to themselves for the night. Security cameras recorded their movements as they moved from room to room, picking up paintings as they went. In cases where they could not manage remove paintings from their frames, they cut the paints out. In total, the robbery lasted 81 minutes, during which the robbers made 2 trips to their car. By the time they were done, they had stolen 13 pieces of art, including 2 Rembrandt's and 2 Vermeer's.
Before leaving the building once and for all, the robbers poked their heads back into the basement where the security guards were being held to tell them, "You'll be hearing from us in about a year." Then they left. The guards remained in the basement until the actual police arrived at 8:15am.
Well here’s a spoiler alert: the security guards did not hear from the robbers in about a year. The robbers were never heard from again. In fact, we still have NO IDEA who they were! That’s why this is so fascinating to me! The FBI investigation that followed this spanned years, and involved cooperation with British, French, and Japanese authorities as well. But if anybody actually knows who did this, they’re not telling.
But Peter, don’t they have any leads??
As a matter of fact, they do have a few leads. They all have led to dead ends, but some of them are still pretty crazy. Here are my favorites…
Lead #1: In 1994, the Isabella Stewart Gardener museum director Anne Hawley received a letter promising the return of the stolen pieces for a sum of $2.6 million (0.52% of their market value). In order to facilitate the return, they had to get The Boston Globe to publish a business story containing a coded message. They got the story published, but after the law enforcement got involved, the trail went cold. Oh well. Moving on.
Lead #2: A few years later, Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg was investigating the robbery. In late 1997, through a contact in the New England crime world named William Youngworth, Mashberg was driven to a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn late one night. This was back when Brooklyn was still a sketchy area. Youngworth took him here on the understanding that he would be allowed to see Rembradt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was one of the most famous pieces that had been stolen. In the darkened warehouse, he was allowed to see the painting briefly with a flashlight. Before he left, he was given a vile containing paint chips for verification. The paint chips did indeed prove to be authentic 17th century Dutch… but from the wrong painting. There were questions regarding whether the painting Mashberg saw was real or fake, but in the end the FBI would decide to stop working with Youngworth. Apparently he was being difficult. The painting has since disappeared, again.
Lead #3: It was more than a decade later before law enforcement released this video, but it turned out that security guard #1 actually had an unidentified visitor the night before robbery. The circumstances were similar; a man rang the buzzer in the middle of the night and the security guard let him in. They spoke for a few minutes, and then the man left. It has been suggested this was actually a dry run for what was to come the next night, which would mean that security guard #1 was in on it. That actually feels pretty likely to me! However, the general consensus within the FBI was that this guy was too dumb to have been involved. Which, like, I dunno man. Maybe that’s just what he wants us to think!
In 2013, the FBI announced that they *think* they know the identities of the thieves… but in 2015 they announced that they these individuals had since passed away. Theories continue to circulated in regards to who was behind this heist. One of the more popular narratives was that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had orchestrated the whole thing, essentially as an elaborate fund raiser. Another popular theory is that Whitey Bulger, who was Boston’s top crime boss at the time, had been pulling the strings. He actually died this month, brutally murdered in prison. His life is a whole other series of articles, but I digress. The punchline here seems to be that whoever the thieves were, THEY 100% GOT AWAY WITH IT!
Anyway, if you hear anything, the museum is still offering a $10 million reward for the stolen pieces.
Visiting The Museum
Okay, so now that we’ve heard so much about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s fabled past, let’s go for a visit!
We came on a gray, rainy day in late spring. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum occupies a massive, stone estate on the border between Fenway and Bay Bay. Admission costs $15 for adults, and what that gets you is far from unsubstantial. Like any good museum, there is a café and a gift shop, but the defining factor that you will notice when entering into this museum is the prevalence of green space. I got a little side-tracked taking pictures of the greenery and a family of rabbits sitting the lawn. So here are those pictures, and then we’ll go into the actual museum.
The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum is pretty interesting from architectural standpoint. The building encircles a large indoor garden, forming a tall atrium area, which sits under a glass roof, flooding the whole structure with natural light. Commissioned by our girl Isabella herself, this building was the first of its kind in America. The collection of the museum occupies the rooms of the massive estate, directly visitors to spiral upwards through the houses many spaces.
The rooms of the house are filled with an eclectic assortment of items spanning centuries and continents. I guess I was accustomed to being in museums that are showing more narrowly focused exhibits, because as I moved from room to room, I couldn’t help but feel like what I was seeing was all over the place! This museum is essentially a massive, high-end take on a hoarder’s nest (in the best possible way). It’s a fascinating place, and it’s got a ton of personality. Unlike any other prominent museums, which focus solely on showcasing their many paintings, in this case the museum itself is also on display. Here are a few pictures I snapped walking through.
And finally, let me show you the site of the most famous of the thefts that occurred here. We’re in the museum’s Dutch Room now. The museum left the empty frames that these paintings were cut out of up on the walls with the rest of their galleries as a tribute to what was lost, which I actually LOVE. Aren’t these empty frames weirdly exciting to look at?
The empty frame positioned next to the portrait of the man wearing red robes used to hold Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Remember? That’s the painting that the Boston Herald reporter saw with a flashlight in that warehouse in Brooklyn in the middle of the night 7 years later. Painted in 1633, this piece is Rembrandt’s only known seascape. If you happen to come across it, the museum will pay you some serious coin for its safe return.
The other empty frame shown above used to hold a less-notable but still ridiculously valuable self-portrait that Rembrandt painted in 1629. This too remains missing.
In spite of the half a billion dollar loss the museum suffered all those years ago, the museum is clearly still doing fine. However, I did perceive the security staff to be a bit more vigilant than what I am accustomed to. Nowhere was this more evident than in the exchange I overheard between one of the museum security guards, and a young child who was trying to have a conversation with him.
The security guard leaned down, and his very best "talking-to-children” voice, said “As much as I like spending time with you, there are evil people in the world, and one of them might be in this room right now”
Sorry bro, maybe not the best bedside manner for a little kid, but “A” for effort!
That concludes this series on Boston. Hope you had fun! We’ll be back to Boston next summer, and I already know what part of the city I want to write about next. But for now, it’s time to move on.
Man, I fucking LOVE a good heist! I’ll finish with a very special track of the day. Anybody out there who shares my enthusiasm for heists will know exactly what this song is from.