March 18, 2013
Very early on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, subdued the guards, and left 81 minutes later with 13 art works, valued around $500 million. They are still missing, and the museum stills hangs empty frames where four of the most important works hung.
“They hang there as testament to our belief that we’ll get them back someday,” said Anthony Amore, head of the museum’s security, in a 2012 interview. “They’re placeholders, not memorials.”
The museum offered a reward of $5 million for information that helped recover the stolen pieces. There several hundred leads, but none that led to an arrest or recovery. A 2005 Boston Globe story says that there was an offer to return the art in 1994, but it did not come to fruit.
The FBI has ranked it #2 on its list of Top Ten Art Crimes, just behind the looting of the Iraqi artifacts. The stolen artworks include: Johannes Vermeer, The Concert Rembrandt, three pieces: A Lady and Gentleman in Black; The Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Self-Portrait Govaert Flinck, Landscape with Obelisk Édouard Manet, Chez Tortoni Edgar Degas, five drawings: La Sortie de Pesage; Cortege aux Environs de Florence; Program for an artistic soiree (1); Program for an artistic soiree (2); Three Mounted Jockeys An ancient Chinese Ku from the Shang Dynasty * A bronze finial in the shape of an eagle
The value of the theft makes it the largest theft of private property in the United States.
Amore, who co-authored a book on art theft in 2011, “Stealing Rembrants,” with Tom Mashberg, says that art thieves are generally more like Peter Sellers’ bumbling Jacques Clouseau, than the sophisticated Thomas Crown, played by Steve McQueen, 1968, reprised by Pierce Brosnan, 1999, in the eponymous movies.
Even when they avoid incompetence, art thieves are rarely successful, because masterpiece paintings are extremely difficult to sell. “Art thieves are stealing problems, not paintings,” Amore said in his 2012 interview published in Harvard Magazine.
The Boston thieves apparently fit Amore’s profile, according to the Globe’s revisiting of the theft, written in 2005, which said that museum officials were baffled by how difficult it has been to catch the thieves. The report noted the thieves, though bold and clever, were hardly meticulous professionals, who did not try to avoid being seen – several people saw the thieves sitting quietly in a red hatchback near the museum’s side entrance, perhaps waiting until a late night St. Patrick’s Day party in a nearby apartment building broke up, and they did not try to hide their faces from the museum guards they overpowered.
The Globe reported that Lynne Richardson, who managed the FBI's National Stolen Art File when the 2005 story was written, said she viewed the Gardner theft as unique in modern American history, because it involved planning, disguises, and deception. ''This is the way they rob museums in Europe, not the United States," she said.
Though museum officials remain hopeful, of course, that the art works will be recovered, the odds are not in their favor. The FBI told the Globe that just 5 percent of stolen artwork is ever returned to its rightful owners. Though Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, which helps in the recovery of stolen artwork, told the newspaper that the chances for return of masterpieces are better, perhaps as high as 20 percent, because there are so few buyers for paintings the world knows were stolen.