Wednesday 12 Aug, 2015

The Mystery of the Gardner Museum Heist

You might expect the biggest art heist in history to have taken place at the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that it would require a large team of clever criminals. But you would be surprised to learn that nothing about this infamous heist was what you would expect. The mystery of who carried out the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist still lives on 25 years later, and although we know very little about the thieves, we know a lot about the crime and new evidence just recently surfaced.

Gardner Museum HeistIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

This seemingly effortless heist took place during the quiet hours of the morning on March 18th, 1990. Two men dressed as police officers rang the doorbell at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:24 a.m., explaining that they were sent to investigate a disturbance. The guard didn’t realize that the museum’s policy of not allowing uninvited guests to enter after close also applied to police officers, and let them in. When the men approached the guard, they claimed there was a warrant out for his arrest. They asked him to come away from the security desk and call his partner who was doing rounds through the museum. As the guard obeyed, he stepped away from the only alarm button in the museum hidden behind the desk. When the other guard returned, the two fake officers handcuffed the two of them in the basement, secured to the pipes, and blindfolded with duct tape.

The thieves had completely disarmed any semblance of a security system and had free reign of the museum. They made their way through the galleries, smashing frames and cutting canvases to take away pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and others. Investigators were stymied by the thieves’ choices, especially since there were many more expensive pieces of art left behind.

The FBI has investigated several suspects over the last 25 years, from known art thieves to a local screenwriter to the security guards themselves. In 1994, detectives thought they had a breakthrough when someone anonymously wrote to the Gardner Museum asking for $2.6 million and immunity in exchange for helping return the stolen art. Although the museum responded positively, the source was scared away when law enforcement got involved. Recently, security footage was released that indicates the thieves were possibly doing a dry run the night before the heist took place. With this new evidence, the Gardner Museum might finally find some closure. Until then, the frames of the stolen paintings hang empty in the galleries, hopeful that one day the art work will return to the museum.8573628318_89aed962f8_oManet’s Chez Tortoni, one of the stolen pieces.

Here’s a look at the heist by the numbers:

76,000 sq. feet : The size of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a small art museum in Boston

1:24 a.m.: When the thieves entered the building

40 yards: how far away from each other the two guards sat after being blindfolded, handcuffed to pipes and detained in the basement.

81 minutes: how long the heist lasted. After confining the guards, the thieves had completely disarmed any semblance of a security system and had free reign over the museum. They made their way through the galleries, smashing frames and cutting canvases to take away pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and others.

7:30 a.m.: When the daytime guard arrived the next day. He immediately realized something was awry when the night guards weren’t there to let him into the building.

13: number of works stolen in the heist.

$500 million: the value of the stolen pieces.

0: people charged with the crime

Photo credit: Bill Damon, Flickr

Photo credit: jess_melanson, Flickr