Today marks the 23rd anniversary of what is known as the largest art theft in U.S. history. In Boston, while revelers were still celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, during the wee hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art, estimated to be valued at a total of $500 million. Items taken included a Manet, 5 drawings by Degas, 3 Rembrandts (including his only known seascape, Storm on the Sea of Galilee) and Vermeer’s The Concert. This makes the robbery the largest theft of personal property ever. The story of the burglary and subsequent investigations are the subject of the 2004 documentary by Rebecca Dreyfus, Stolen (conveniently also available as an eVideo through our online collection), as well as a book, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser.
The film concentrates on the revitalized investigation in the early 2000s led by renowned art detective Harold Smith. He worked diligently on this investigation until his death from skin cancer in 2005. Mr. Smith was able to interview on-screen known art thieves, such as Myles Connor, whom the Boston Police considered a viable suspect for the Gardner theft, even though he was in prison at the time. Whitey Bulger, notorious Boston mobster, has always been thought to know something about the heist. But even though he was finally apprehended in 2011, he has not provided any major breaks for the investigators. Theories about where the paintings are today range from a warehouse in the Boston area, to the homes of mobsters in Russia.
The Concert by Vermeer is considered to be the most valuable work of art stolen from the Gardner museum that day. Because so few Vermeer paintings exist, taking even one out of the public eye is a great loss to the art community.
The museum itself is a work of art, the model of a 15th century Venetian palace surrounding a courtyard garden. It should really be on any must-see list for Boston vacations. Admission is free on your birthday and always free for anyone named Isabella. (True!) The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the only art museum in the world designed by a woman, built by a woman, paid for by a woman, and filled with art collected solely by a woman – a wonderful example for Women’s History Month.
Isabella Stewart Gardener was a captivating and complex woman. She spent two years depressed and ill after the death of her 2 year old son. Her doctor suggested that her husband take her on a tour of Europe. During this and subsequent travels, Mrs. Gardner cultivated her love of fine art. At home in Boston, she supported the arts and local sports teams. Mrs. Gardner did not conform to the Victorian ideals of what a woman should be like. This led to many rumors and speculation about her activities. In response to these stories about her, often printed in the Boston newspapers, Mrs. Gardener would reply, “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth.”
Fascination, obsession even, with the Gardner Museum art theft continues today. Just last year investigators may have uncovered pertinent information to the case. With a $5 million reward on the line, you can understand why many armchair sleuths are trying to solve this mystery.
“Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it.” – Isabella Stewart Gardner