Crimes Of The '90s

Inside The Gardner Museum Heist, The Biggest Unsolved Art Theft In History

It's estimated the thieves made off with up to $500 million in art. 

On March 18, 1990, the greatest art theft in history was pulled off at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Estimates put the value of the 13 stolen pieces between $300 and $500 million, and the case remains unsolved to this day. Though it may seem like they only happen in movies, art thefts are fairly common. With famous paintings valued in the multi-millions, art theft is lucrative business for criminals, who either ransom the artworks back to their owners or sell them for big money on the black market. According to ABC, tens of thousands of works of art are stolen yearly, and Interpol says on its website the market for stolen art is “becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods.”

The Isabella Stewart Gardner sits just south of The Fens, the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed green space which gives its name to the nearby ballpark of the Boston Red Sox. Founded in 1903 by wealthy art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner, the museum consists of her personal art collection and is housed in an intimate setting, designed to emulate a Venetian Renaissance palace. It contains pieces from antiquity up to the 19th century from every corner of the world and includes important works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt, among many others.

At 1:24 AM on the morning of March 18, 1990, as the previous days’ Saint Patrick’s Day reveries died down, two men in police uniforms rang the buzzer at the Gardner Museum. They said they were responding to reports of a disturbance. Once inside, they handcuffed the two security guards, explained this was a robbery, and locked them in the museum’s basement.

Over the next 81 minutes, the thieves handpicked some of the museum’s most important pieces of art, while leaving other equally valuable pieces alone. Among the stolen works were three pieces by Dutch master Rembrandt, one of only 34 known paintings by Vermeer, a painting by 1800s impressionist Manet and a series of drawings by Edgar Degas.

The museum’s trustees initially offered a $1 million reward for information leading to an arrest or the work’s return, later raising the amount to $5 million, at the behest of the FBI, according to a March 1998 feature in Vanity Fair. That same feature claimed the robbery may have been committed by Boston-area career criminals Robert Donati and David Houghton. The only problem was both men were dead: Donati from a 1991 gangland slaying and Houghton from a heart attack the following year.

The FBI has pursued numerous leads over the years related to the case, but have yet to find the missing artworks. In March 18, 2013, 23 years to the day of the original robbery, they announced they knew the identities of the two thieves who pulled of the Gardner Museum heist, though they refused to name them.

“We’ve determined in the years after the theft that the art was transported to the Connecticut and Philadelphia regions. But we haven’t identified where the art is right now,” special agent Richard DesLauriers was quoted in The New York Times at the time.

Since 2012, the FBI has been engaged in a battle of wills with small-time Connecticut Mafia associate Robert Gentile. The 81-year-old has been in prison for the last four and a half years on drug and gun charges in hopes of pressuring him to reveal what he knows about the theft, after he was incriminated by the widow of a fellow gangster. In late September 2017, a judge ordered a competency evaluation for Gentile, according to the Hartford Courant

In 2015, the US Attorney’s Office released newly discovered security camera footage from the night before the robbery, which they believe may have been a practice run. A source close to the investigation told the website that one of the two men in the video was Richard Abath, who was one of the two security guards on duty the night of the robbery. Abath, however, denies any involvement, and has been repeatedly questioned by the FBI.

Last June, Dutch private investigator Arthur Brand told CBS Boston he was negotiating for the return of the paintings, which he believed were in Ireland, possibly in the possession of former members of the Irish Republican Army.

In May of this year, The New York Times reported that the board of trustees of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had raised the reward for the stolen items recovery to $10 million.

“We encourage anyone with information to contact the museum directly, and we guarantee complete confidentiality,” the museum’s security director Anthony Amore said in a statement. The offer expires at the end of the year. The stolen paintings' picture frames still hang on the walls of the museum where they originally were, forlornly awaiting their one-day return. 

[Photos: Getty Images]

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Crimes Of The '90s

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