The $500 Million Unsolved Mystery of the Gardner Museum Heist
Thirteen pieces of invaluable art remain missing after 28 years.
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images
Published March 16, 2018
Published 3 months ago
The FBI has called it the largest property theft in U.S. history: In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers entered Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the two security guards on duty, and made out with 13 pieces — Rembrandts, Degas, and a Vermeer among them — valued at $500 million. Twenty-eight years later, the whereabouts of those artworks remain a mystery.
In the ensuing years, there has been no shortage of suspects, theories, and reported sightings. In 2013, FBI officials announced that they knew who perpetrated the crime; two years later they revealed that the thieves were dead. (The names have never been released and the statute of limitations has long expired.) The agency's efforts — as well as those of many citizen sleuths — is now focused on retrieving one if not all 13 of the stolen works.
Oxygen Media/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
And that's where documentarians Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna (pictured above) enter the story. Following the success of their podcast "Missing Maura Murray," about a University of Massachusetts Amherst student who vanished, the men began looking into their home state's huge art heist — and soon realized the case was even more twisty and turny than they could have imagined. They launched the podcast "Empty Frames" in February aiming to not only weave a compelling yarn, but also to raise the profile of the crime itself and, hopefully, inspire anyone with information to come forward. "We're talking about something that is on the brink if not already becoming sort of an urban legend or folklore," says Reenstierna. "When you look at the gravity of all of those pieces of property that were stolen, it really should be more in the public view. I think that was the most realistic goal when we first started — just to make it more relevant."
In that spirit, the duo walk FOTO through the particulars and peculiarities of the art world's most infamous crime.
Heritage Images/Heritage Images/Getty ImagesThe Missing PiecesThirteen artworks in total were stolen — and in some cases, savagely cut from their frames with a knife. (The empty frames remain hanging in the museum due to a stipulation in Gardner's will that her collection not be altered.) The purloined pieces comprise five Degas ("La Sortie du Pelage," "Cortege Aux Environs de Florence," "Three Mounted Jockeys," and two versions of "Program for an Artistic Soiree"), three Rembrandts ("A Lady and Gentleman in Black," "Self Portrait," and, pictured above, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"), Vermeer's "The Concert," Govaert Flinck's "Landscape with an Obelisk," a Shang Dynasty Chinese Bronze Beaker from 1200-1100 B.C., Manet's "Chez Tortoni," and a Napoleonic Eagle Finial.
"The Concert" is considered the most valuable piece among those stolen, while "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" holds the distinction of being Rembrandt's only known seascape. The preponderance of stolen Rembrandts may also hold a clue, says Pilleri. "The working theory is that Rembrandt's name was so popular that if the Rembrandts were stolen they could potentially be used to get someone out of prison," he says. "Because it had actually happened before, about 15 years earlier in Boston. Someone had stolen a Rembrandt and negotiated a lesser prison sentence." That heist was allegedly pulled off by career criminal Myles Connor, who later — from prison — claimed he could also orchestrate the return of the Gardner art. Which, of course, never happened. (Read more about Connor's crazy scheme and his purported Gardner connection.)
Heritage Images/Heritage Images/Getty ImagesThe Ones Left BehindDespite the dizzying value of the stolen artworks, experts continue to puzzle over the thieves' approach since many more valuable pieces were ignored. "It is interesting to note which ones weren't taken," says Reenstierna. "The museum has more of an Italian style — it's based on a Venetian palace — and there's Italian artwork that was overlooked, like 'The Rape of Europa' by Titian. That would have been priceless." However, there could be an easy explanation for the seeming oversight of the Titian (pictured above). "It's enormous," explains Pilleri. "That one is like two or three times bigger than any of the Rembrandts or any of the other paintings."Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe Crazy TheoriesIn the years leading up to the FBI's revelation that it knew the identity of the thieves, law enforcement and armchair detectives alike investigated (and continue to investigate) countless leads, some plausible and some downright absurd. "The [theory] that I like is that [the art is] actually still in the building behind drywall," says Reenstierna. "It is a fun theory, but the museum is gorgeous enough they probably weren't thinking, 'We gotta get attendance up to pay the bills!'" Pilleri's favorite theory is more international in scope and involves the Irish Republic Army: "[Boston gangster] Whitey Bulger had a connection to them, and they had an affinity for Vermeers specifically. They had stolen three in the past. I don't think Whitey had any involvement in the actual crime. But I think there's a chance he got involved afterwards." It's important to note the distinction between who stole the artwork and who has the artwork today. It's very likely they aren't one in the same — the pieces have undoubtedly changed hands many times over since 1990. (Pictured above in the foreground: The frame that once held the Vermeer.)
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe Recovery Efforts TodayThe FBI continues to actively investigate the art's whereabouts, though the trail went cold in 2003. "We have determined that in the years since the theft, the art was transported to the Connecticut and Philadelphia regions, but we haven't been able to identify where the art is right now," Kristen Setera, an FBI spokeswoman, told The Boston Globe in 2017. The Gardner museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the pieces in good condition — with "in good condition" being the imperative phrase here. It's a lot to hope that the paintings haven't been significantly damaged over the course of nearly 30 years. "We know New England is a particularly bad place to store paintings because of the humid, hot summers and dry, cold winters," explains Pilleri. "They would have had to have been kept in some kind of airtight container or something like that for them to not be damaged further." And they would also need to remain relatively flat, not rolled up like, say, a Farrah Fawcett poster. "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," in particular, has been treated repeatedly to the point where its rigidity is more akin to cardboard than canvas. "I think if someone tried to roll them up or fold them, they would probably do that two times and they're destroyed," says Reenstierna. And then there's the prospect that the pieces were intentionally destroyed by the thieves, who found their loot simply too hot to handle.
Whatever the case may be, the theft is not only an incredible loss for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but for the Boston arts community at large, which also includes the Museum of Fine Arts (where Connors swiped that Rembrandt) and, a bit further afield, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. "You should look at the heist but then you should actually go to these museums," says Reenstierna. "Go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and go face-to-face with some of these pieces of art."
"When you're there it's kind of weird because the whole museum is like this piece of art and these frames kind of make it seem like this crime was this sophisticated piece of art too," says Pilleri. "But in reality, it wasn't. These were brutal criminals who didn't really care enough about the art to not cut them out of the frame."
If you have information about any of the 13 pieces of art missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, they ask that you contact the director of security, Anthony Amore, at 617-278-5114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Download episodes of "Empty Frames" from your favorite podcast platform or here.