The Gardner Museum Heist
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, the night of St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, two men dressed as police officers approach the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Mrs. Gardner, who has been called the first great art collector in America, designed the castle-like mansion herself, modeled after a Renaissance-era Venetian palazzo. The men ring the buzzer, and a security guard inside answers via intercom. “Police. Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” The security guard can see the men on camera, and they look like police. There had already been several false alarms that evening. Was it possible there was someone inside the museum? Against protocol, the young guard buzzes the men inside.
It's a fatal mistake.
Once inside, the two thieves quickly subdue, duct tape, and handcuff the two security guards. No alarm has been sounded. It’s about 1:45 a.m., and the museum is now theirs. The thieves head first to the Dutch room, where they pull Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee off the wall, smash the painting out of its frame, and knife the canvas from its stretcher. Flecks of 17th century oil paint rain onto the floor. The painting is irrevocably damaged, and it hasn’t even left the museum yet.
After repeating these actions with another large Rembrandt, the thieves head over to a side table and lift Vermeer’s The Concert off its stand. With a current estimated value of $300 million, it is one of the most valuable paintings in the world. If it made that value at auction today, it would eclipse the current most expensive painting ever sold (which as of May 2010 is a Jackson Pollock sold in 2006 for $140 million).
Their biggest prizes in hand, the thieves proceed through other rooms of the museum, stealing 13 works in all, including 3 Rembrandts, the Vermeer, a Manet, a Flinck, several Degas sketches, a Chinese goblet, and the finial to a Napoleonic flag. Before they leave the museum, the thieves break into the security director’s office, remove the surveillance tapes, and leave the empty frame of the Manet resting on the security director’s chair. It’s a final calling card, and the Gardner masterpieces vanish into the night.
In March 2010 the lead FBI investigator on the Gardner case told the Boston Globe:
“My feeling is that it was some local guys, a quick score in and out, and they wake up the next morning and they realize that they’ve just committed the art heist of the century. Taking the theory . . . to its potential conclusion, now you’ve got these things so what do you do with them? Well, you hold on to them until the heat dies down, and here it is 20 years later, and it’s just as hot.’’
One of the great mysteries of the Gardner heist is why the thieves also didn't steal Titian's Rape of Europa, which has been called "arguably the greatest painting in America."