Inside the $500 million art heist from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that still hasn't been solved 30 years on

Advertisement
Inside the $500 million art heist from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that still hasn't been solved 30 years on

Rembrandt's

John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe / Getty

This is one of the paintings stolen in the mysterious heist in 1990 that is still unsolved.

  • In 1990, two thieves pretended to be police officers and robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, taking what's worth an estimated 500 million dollars.
  • Despite a number of suspects, including the Mafia and the Irish Republican Army, the robbery still hasn't been solved after 30 years.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It is America's greatest art heist.

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves walked into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum disguised as police officers.

Advertisement

They bound and gagged two guards, then stole 13 pieces of art by artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet.

They were inside for 81 minutes. The total value of the stolen artworks is worth an estimated $500 million.

It's been 30 years, and none of the pieces have been seen in public since. The case has never been solved.

Advertisement

Here's what happened, in photos.

{{}}

On the evening of March 18, 1990, two white men sat quietly in a red hatchback near a side entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, according to several people walking on the street that night.

On the evening of March 18, 1990, two white men sat quietly in a red hatchback near a side entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, according to several people walking on the street that night.

Source: Boston.com

The museum is a 15th-century Venetian palace, built almost a hundred years earlier to house philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner's private art collection.

The museum is a 15th-century Venetian palace, built almost a hundred years earlier to house philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner's private art collection.

She died in 1924. In her will, she said the collection had to remain exactly as she left it.

Up until the robbery, none of its 2,500 works had moved, let alone been replaced, or stolen.

Sources: The New York Times, Vanity Fair

Advertisement

After midnight, as St. Patrick's Day festivities were coming to an end, the two men wearing police badges rang the museum's buzzer.

After midnight, as St. Patrick's Day festivities were coming to an end, the two men wearing police badges rang the museum's buzzer.

They told the security guard they were there to investigate a disturbance on the grounds.

Sources: The New York Times, Boston.com

Rick Abath, the 23-year-old nightwatchman, saw them on the video monitor and buzzed them in at 1.24 a.m. He told NPR, "They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in."

Rick Abath, the 23-year-old nightwatchman, saw them on the video monitor and buzzed them in at 1.24 a.m. He told NPR, "They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in."

Abath was asked if there was any other security. He told them another guard was on duty, and called him to come down.

After they had both security guards in one room, one of the thieves said: "gentlemen this is a robbery."

Sources: NPR, The New York Times

Advertisement

The FBI later provided descriptions of the two men, with and without mustaches.

The FBI later provided descriptions of the two men, with and without mustaches.

The first suspect was a white male, with dark hair and eyes, of medium build, who wore wire rim glasses.

The second suspect was a larger white male, with dark hair and eyes, in his early 30s.

Sources: NPR, The New York Times

The thieves duct-taped both guards' eyes, taped Abath's chin to the other guard's head and handcuffed him to an electrical box.

The thieves duct-taped both guards' eyes, taped Abath's chin to the other guard's head and handcuffed him to an electrical box.

The only other security that impeded the thieves was an alarm that rang when they went too close to a painting, and they promptly smashed it.

Sources: NPR, Boston.com

Advertisement

Over 81 minutes, the thieves took 13 works, including paintings by Vermeer, Degas, Manet, and two by Rembrandt that had been cut out of the frame, meaning they would never be the same even if they were recovered. They also took a Chinese Bronze beaker and a finial flag pole top.

Over 81 minutes, the thieves took 13 works, including paintings by Vermeer, Degas, Manet, and two by Rembrandt that had been cut out of the frame, meaning they would never be the same even if they were recovered. They also took a Chinese Bronze beaker and a finial flag pole top.

Sources: NPR, Boston Magazine, The New York Times

According to Boston Magazine, "the thieves did so little, and got away with so much."

According to Boston Magazine, "the thieves did so little, and got away with so much."

Sources: NPR, Boston Magazine,

Advertisement

And they did it without leaving behind any clues. According to Vanity Fair, all that remained was a "cascade of 360-year-old paint chips."

And they did it without leaving behind any clues. According to Vanity Fair, all that remained was a "cascade of 360-year-old paint chips."

Sources: Vanity Fair

The police didn't arrive until 8.15 a.m. Later in the day, Curator Karen Haas and director Anne Hawley held a news conference. They told reporters the stolen works were worth "more than $200 million."

The police didn't arrive until 8.15 a.m. Later in the day, Curator Karen Haas and director Anne Hawley held a news conference. They told reporters the stolen works were worth "more than $200 million."

But an exact value was impossible because they had been purchased years earlier, and there were no comparable sales.

Sources: The New York Times, Boston.com

Advertisement

The mystery began from the very choices the thieves made. They left more valuable paintings, like one called the "Rape of Europa," and took a small sketch from Rembrandt.

The mystery began from the very choices the thieves made. They left more valuable paintings, like one called the "Rape of Europa," and took a small sketch from Rembrandt.

Director Anne Hawley suggested it was a "hit list," ordered by someone.

While later reports in The New York Times suggested the fact they cut the art from the frames meant they weren't aware of how valuable the art was.

Source: The New York Times

There were monetary problems involved in the recovery. The museum was not insured for the theft. And even though the museum offered a $1 million reward, it prompted few leads over the next few years.

There were monetary problems involved in the recovery. The museum was not insured for the theft. And even though the museum offered a $1 million reward, it prompted few leads over the next few years.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New York Times

Advertisement

From the beginning, the FBI were following leads. The New York Times reported on March 22, four days after the robbery, that agents were interviewing "almost anyone with even a remote tie to the museum, including caterers and repairmen." But not everyone was impressed.

From the beginning, the FBI were following leads. The New York Times reported on March 22, four days after the robbery, that agents were interviewing "almost anyone with even a remote tie to the museum, including caterers and repairmen." But not everyone was impressed.

Hawley later told Ulrich Boser, a journalist who wrote a book about the theft, that the FBI agents first on the case appeared inexperienced.

In 2007, she said to him: "Why didn't the FBI have the capacity to assign a senior-level person? Why was it not considered something that needed immediate and high-level attention?"

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor

Hawley was deeply involved with efforts to try get the paintings back. At one point, according to local radio station WBUR, she even requested the Vatican issue a papal appeal to recover the paintings.

Hawley was deeply involved with efforts to try get the paintings back. At one point, according to local radio station WBUR, she even requested the Vatican issue a papal appeal to recover the paintings.

Source: WBUR

Advertisement

There were many suspects — from the security guards to local mob members to mafia boss Jim "Whitey" Bulger, as well as the Irish Republican Army.

There were many suspects — from the security guards to local mob members to mafia boss Jim "Whitey" Bulger, as well as the Irish Republican Army.

Over the next 23 years, more than a dozen Boston "underworld figures" were questioned, according to The New York Times.

Sources: The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times

Six days after the theft, with no concrete answers, the museum reopened.

Six days after the theft, with no concrete answers, the museum reopened.

Source: The New York Times

Advertisement

Even though the museum was open, it was changed. The empty frames were an obvious reminder of the robbery. But under Gardner's will nothing could be replaced.

Even though the museum was open, it was changed. The empty frames were an obvious reminder of the robbery. But under Gardner's will nothing could be replaced.

Sources: The New York Times, Vanity Fair

The first promising lead didn't appear until 1994, after hundreds of tips and one failed FBI mission to Japan in 1992. Hawley received an anonymous letter written from New York.

The first promising lead didn't appear until 1994, after hundreds of tips and one failed FBI mission to Japan in 1992. Hawley received an anonymous letter written from New York.

It said the paintings could be returned for $2.6 million, and full immunity for both the thieves and the people keeping the paintings.

Sources: Vanity Fair, Boston.com

Advertisement

The letter said they were in archival conditions but a decision needed to be made soon. The urgency was because the paintings were in a country where a person who didn't know they had been stolen could claim legal ownership.

The letter said they were in archival conditions but a decision needed to be made soon. The urgency was because the paintings were in a country where a person who didn't know they had been stolen could claim legal ownership.

The writer requested that the number "1" be put into the Boston Globe's currency box if the museum wanted the deal to go ahead.

Hawley took the letter to the FBI, and then to the Boston Globe. Management at the newspaper agreed to help and ran a "1" in the middle of the value of the Italian lira.

Hawley received a second letter that raised concerns about the FBI. After that she never heard from the letter writer again.

When she retired in 2015, she said the loss of the Vermeer's "The Concert" still haunted her.

Sources: WBUR, Boston.com, The Guardian

In 1997, at FBI's urging, the museum increased the reward to $5 million. Then, in August, antique dealer William P. Youngworth said he could get 11 of the 13 artworks back.

In 1997, at FBI's urging, the museum increased the reward to $5 million. Then, in August, antique dealer William P. Youngworth said he could get 11 of the 13 artworks back.

He made the announcement standing outside a Boston court, where he was about to face firearm possession and substance charges.

It garnered media attention. In September, he appeared on ABC News' "Nightline," and said he could "probably facilitate" the work being returned. He also clarified he hadn't stolen them since he was in prison at the time.

He dismissed questions on "Nightline" about whether it could be a scam. He said: "What would be the point of staging an elaborate hoax like this? You think they're just going to hand over the money without getting the art? 'Here's your suitcase, come back when you can with the stuff?' I don't think so.''

Sources: Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times

Advertisement

In exchange for the paintings, Youngworth wanted the $5 million reward, immunity from prosecution, and art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. to be released from prison three years early.

In exchange for the paintings, Youngworth wanted the $5 million reward, immunity from prosecution, and art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. to be released from prison three years early.

Connor was in prison at the time of the theft but authorities had suspected his involvement, since he had previously "scoped out," the museum, according to The New York Times.

Connor had also helped Boston's Museum of Fine Arts recover a different stolen Rembrandt painting.

However, his lawyer repeatedly said, "Myles would never tolerate butchering art," according to Vanity Fair. This was alluding to the Rembrandt paintings that were cut out of the frame.

A week after his first press conference, Youngworth took a reporter from the Boston Herald named Tom Mashberg to a warehouse and showed him what looked like Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee."

A week after his first press conference, Youngworth took a reporter from the Boston Herald named Tom Mashberg to a warehouse and showed him what looked like Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee."

Mashberg wrote about the experience for Vanity Fair. He described the moment he saw the painting, whether it was a replica or not: "Gingerly he extracted a large, rolled-up canvas, which he unfurled before me. It was, I am certain, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, arguably the most famous missing painting in the world."

"I saw frayed edges, where the painting had been cut from its frame on the night it was stolen, and I was shown, in the flashlight's beam, Rembrandt's signature," he wrote.

Mashberg also wrote that he knew Youngworth was the person who often looked after goods that had been stolen by Connor.

Sources: The New York Times, Vanity Fair

Advertisement

By late September, Youngworth told The New York Times, "The Feds don't want it to happen." He said they didn't want to have an ex-con be the one to find the paintings.

By late September, Youngworth told The New York Times, "The Feds don't want it to happen." He said they didn't want to have an ex-con be the one to find the paintings.

At that point, the FBI and the museum's goals were different. The museum wanted the art back, while the FBI wanted to make an arrest.

Youngworth went to prison, and the search continued.

Sources: The New York Times, Vanity Fair

The next notable lead was in 1999, when a man named David Turner was arrested with others by the FBI on the way to a robbery. The group was armed with six guns and a hand grenade.

The next notable lead was in 1999, when a man named David Turner was arrested with others by the FBI on the way to a robbery. The group was armed with six guns and a hand grenade.

The FBI suspected Turner was involved in the 1990 art heist and offered to lower his sentence if he provided information.

He refused and went to jail until 2019.

Source: The Daily Mail

Advertisement

In the 2000s, the FBI investigation continued. Special Agent Charles Prouty told CNN that unlike a murder investigation that gets harder to solve the longer it goes, time passing could bring investigators closer to cracking it.

In the 2000s, the FBI investigation continued. Special Agent Charles Prouty told CNN that unlike a murder investigation that gets harder to solve the longer it goes, time passing could bring investigators closer to cracking it.

According to CNN, it usually takes years or decades to solve an art theft.

Prouty told the network: "As time passes, relationships change, people are divorced, people may die."

In 2005, the museum hired security consultant Anthony Amore as its head of security. His role included helping the FBI with its investigation. In 2018, he was still speaking with agents on a daily basis.

In 2005, the museum hired security consultant Anthony Amore as its head of security. His role included helping the FBI with its investigation. In 2018, he was still speaking with agents on a daily basis.

According to WBUR, trying to recover the art was all-consuming for Amore.

In his bedroom he had a full-size replica of one of the paintings called "The Concert."

In his office, he had a replica of Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee."

Sources: WBUR, WBUR, WBUR

Advertisement

The robbery was taken up by Amore's daughter, too. Here's a picture she drew. It says: "Now, I will help my dad find stolen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and sleep in my dad's office for the night."

The robbery was taken up by Amore's daughter, too. Here's a picture she drew. It says: "Now, I will help my dad find stolen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and sleep in my dad's office for the night."

In 2010, investigators moved to monitoring a used-car dealer named Robert Gentile. They were interested in Gentile after the wife of his one of peers told authorities she had seen her husband handing over two stolen paintings outside of a hotel in Portland, Maine, a decade earlier.

In 2010, investigators moved to monitoring a used-car dealer named Robert Gentile. They were interested in Gentile after the wife of his one of peers told authorities she had seen her husband handing over two stolen paintings outside of a hotel in Portland, Maine, a decade earlier.

In 2012, the FBI searched Gentile's house and seized five guns, ammunition, and silencers.

He was arrested and offered a chance to skip jail time if he provided information about the 1990 heist, but he said he didn't know anything.

Sources: Smithsonian, The New York Times

Advertisement

In 2011, mob boss and former informer James "Whitey" Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica after years of living on the run. He didn't give any more information about the heist.

In 2011, mob boss and former informer James "Whitey" Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica after years of living on the run. He didn't give any more information about the heist.

Source: The Guardian

In 2013, exactly 23 years after the robbery, the FBI made a "splashy" announcement designed to get people's attention, according to The New York Times. The bureau said it knew the identities of the thieves, and that they were dead. But the names weren't released.

In 2013, exactly 23 years after the robbery, the FBI made a "splashy" announcement designed to get people's attention, according to The New York Times. The bureau said it knew the identities of the thieves, and that they were dead. But the names weren't released.

They said that ten years earlier they thought they had traced the paintings to Connecticut and Philadelphia but had been unable to take it any further.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers said the investigation was nearing its "final chapter."

According to The New York Times, the FBI was going to put up billboards about the paintings, as well as updating its website to show the "jarring image" of the art going up where the faces of the FBI's most wanted usually were.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times

Advertisement

In 2015, federal officials released grainy footage of Abath, the guard on duty the night of the robbery. The footage showed him letting someone else into the museum the day before the robbery. The man was let in through the same door the thieves entered.

In 2015, federal officials released grainy footage of Abath, the guard on duty the night of the robbery. The footage showed him letting someone else into the museum the day before the robbery. The man was let in through the same door the thieves entered.

The man was inside for a few minutes before leaving. According to the United States Attorney's office in Massachusetts, Abath had never disclosed this before.

When the New York Times tried to contact Abath in 2015, his wife Diane answered the phone. She said: "I can't deal with this right now," and hung up.

The tape was released by the authorities in the hope it would lead to new clues.

Source: The New York Times

But it looks like no substantial clues came from the video's release. On March 18, 2020, thirty years after the robbery, the museum was still filled with empty frames.

But it looks like no substantial clues came from the video's release. On March 18, 2020, thirty years after the robbery, the museum was still filled with empty frames.

To commemorate the anniversary, the museum worked with social media influencers to share images, as well as creating an online audio tour that allowed people to follow the thieves' footsteps.

Source: WBUR

Advertisement

And Amore, the museum's head of security, was no longer so sure the paintings would be found. He told WBUR: "You know, I remember the 20th like it was yesterday. The 25th was a blur. Now we're at the 30th. The pace of the work continues, but when these anniversaries come it's a reminder of what you have not accomplished."

And Amore, the museum's head of security, was no longer so sure the paintings would be found. He told WBUR: "You know, I remember the 20th like it was yesterday. The 25th was a blur. Now we're at the 30th. The pace of the work continues, but when these anniversaries come it's a reminder of what you have not accomplished."

After so many years without success, he said: "it's a difficult thing to imagine that it would take this long to find them."

Source: WBUR