Inside the $500 million art heist from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that still hasn't been solved 30 years on
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe / Getty
- 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.
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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.
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.
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.
The museum is a 15th-century Venetian palace, built almost a hundred years earlier to house philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner's private art collection.
After midnight, as St. Patrick's Day festivities were coming to an end, the two men wearing police badges rang the museum's buzzer.
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."
The FBI later provided descriptions of the two men, with and without mustaches.
The thieves duct-taped both guards' eyes, taped Abath's chin to the other guard's head and handcuffed him to an electrical box.
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.
According to Boston Magazine, "the thieves did so little, and got away with so much."
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."
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Six days after the theft, with no concrete answers, the museum reopened.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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."
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