On March 18th, 1990, two men disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA and stole 13 works of art worth $500 million. It was the largest art theft in history, and the museum has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of the works. This mystery has fascinated art lovers for years, and despite the FBI's best efforts, it remains unsolved. Read on to find out about the stolen works and how it happened.
Who Was Isabella Stewart Gardner?
Isabella Stewart Gardner (April 14th, 1840 – July 17th, 1924) was a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and patron. She was widely travelled and founded the museum to showcase her impressive collection. It includes 7,500 paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles, silver, ceramics, 3,000 rare books, and 7,000 archival objects from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic world and 19th-century France and America. The museum is housed in a beautiful Venitian-inspired building and opened on January 1st 1903. The collection includes pieces by the likes of Rembrandt, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and John Singer Sargent.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Main Lobby
Which Valuable Paintings Were Stolen?
The thieves who robbed the museum stole 13 works of art. Among them was The Concert by Vermeer. It has an estimated value of $250 million and was one of the most valuable works stolen from the museum, and experts think it could be the most valuable stolen object in the world. It is one of only 34 paintings attributed to Vermeer. It depicts a young woman at a harpsichord, a man playing the lute, and a woman singing. Their clothes and surroundings indicate they are wealthy members of the upper class. Several works by Rembrandt were also stolen, including Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633); this is his only painted seascape and has an estimated worth of $140 million. Other items included in the haul are an etching by Rembrandt, sketches by Degas, and paintings by Edouard Manet and Govaert Flinck (this piece was attributed initially to Rembrandt). Also stolen was a gu, an ancient Chinese bronze beaker, and a bronze eagle finial from Napoleon's Imperial Guard. The eclectic choice of items puzzled art experts, as some items, such as the gu and the finial, were relatively low in value. The thieves also ignored more valuable, well-known works, such as The Rape of Europa by Titian. After the robbery, investigators noticed that the thieves had attempted to steal larger and heavier pieces, such as a Rembrandt oil painting on wood, but discarded it in favour of the smaller etching.
The Concert - Johannes Vermeer
How Did The Theft Happen?
In the early hours of Sunday, March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers buzzed on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. There were two night watchmen on duty; Rick Abath, age 23, and Randy Hestand, age 25; Abath was a regular night watchman, and it was Hestand's first night shift. Over the intercom, they asked to be admitted and said they were police investigating a disturbance. They entered a locked foyer and told Abath to gather any other staff. Using deception, the thieves handcuffed the guards and revealed their plans to rob the museum. They blindfolded the guards, led them to the basement, and handcuffed them to a steam pipe and workbench.
Infrared motion detectors tracked the thieves through the museum. They entered the Dutch Room, where the
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black
(below) hung. Throwing the paintings onto the floor to shatter their glass frames, the thieves sliced the canvases from the stretchers. One thief continued collecting items from the Dutch Room while his companion began work in the Short Gallery, home to the finial and Degas sketches. They also stole Chez Tortoni from the Blue Room on the first floor.
On the way out, the thieves looked in on the guards. They took the video cassettes that recorded their entrance on the closed-circuit cameras and the data print-outs from the motion-detecting equipment. They exited via a side entrance a mere 81 minutes after they arrived and were never seen again. The guards on the morning shift raised the alarm when they couldn't contact their colleagues, and the police found the night guards in the basement.
What Happened After?
According to the will of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the museum board could not significantly alter the collection, so the empty frames for the stolen paintings remain in place at the museum to mark their position and as hopeful symbols of their recovery. See below, the frame which once held The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee. The FBI investigated the case, which is still active and ongoing, but, despite much searching, they could not find the culprits. The museum offered $10 million for the safe return of the paintings and a separate fund of $100,000 for the gold filial. The statute of limitations expired in 1995, so the police or FBI cannot prosecute the thieves and any participants in the theft.
Where Can I Learn More?
We hope you enjoyed this blog post, stay tuned to read more in our series about the theft of famous paintings!