By Deepti Govind
It’s been more than three decades now since two men dressed as Boston Police Department officers ended up pulling off what’s still considered the single largest property theft in the United States, and possibly the world. Despite this unprecedented scale, there hasn’t been much by way of new information on the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist in the public domain for years now.
But with so few details confirmed, a seemingly endless list of trails and suspects that appear to have emerged over the years, no single motive or pattern, and all 13 works of art — now said to be worth half a billion dollars — still missing, it’s no wonder that this Boston museum theft still manages to capture the fancy of many art and criminal history enthusiasts. The heist was even on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Top Ten Art Crimes list in 2005.
Today, in the second piece of our art crime series, we take you through the fundamental basics of this still-unsolved crime that continues to baffle, enthrall, and frustrate those who have followed it closely, perhaps in equal measure.
What do you need to know about the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (referred to as “the museum” hereon) if you only have a few minutes? Here you go, although we think you may be too hooked to spend just a few minutes on this case!
- The museum was set up by American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, who constructed it from her own private Venetian palazzo–inspired home. It opened to the public in 1903. After her death in 1924, though, the museum fell into financial disrepair and by 1990, its security flaws were allegedly common knowledge among Boston’s criminal “elite,” according to a Smithsonian Magazine article.
- The robbery happened in the early hours on March 18, 1990. Two men in what appeared to be Boston Police Department uniforms pulled up near the side entrance of the museum.
- Once they entered the museum, they tied up the security guards and then proceeded to steal 13 works of art, including rare paintings by Dutch masters Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer.
- The thieves were inside the museum for 81 minutes to pull off the heist. Most of the stolen works of art were from the museum’s Dutch Room.
- Everyone from the guards on duty that night, to well-known art thieves, and even various mobs have been considered persons of interest, either by the authorities or in the eye of the public/media.
- In March 2013, the FBI said they had made significant investigative progress and had identified the route along which the loot was transported, but they had not been able to locate the missing works of art.
- It was in March 2015 that the last big announcement came, with the FBI releasing the names of two suspects in the crime: George Reissfelder and Lenny DiMuzio, who were supposedly known associates of the mobster Carmello Merlino. But both Reissfelder and DiMuzio died within a year of the heist, one allegedly of a drug overdose and the other by homicide.
- Cut to today, and the museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s office are still seeking viable leads that could result in the safe return of the art works.
- “The Museum is offering a $10 million dollar reward for information leading directly to the safe return of the stolen works. (A share of the reward would be given in exchange for information leading to the restitution of any portion of the works.) A separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial,” it says on its website.
- You can view the entire list of the works of art that were stolen that night here.
What Happened That Night
The details of that fateful night have been gone over countless times. Here’s a gist of what is said to have happened, based on accounts from personnel at the museum itself, the Smithsonian Magazine, and several news reports.
During the early hours of March 18, two thieves dressed as police officers pulled up in a vehicle near the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They pretended to be cops who were responding to a disturbance call at the museum. What perhaps sold this story to the young guards on duty that night was that it was St Patrick’s Day, an important celebration for the city and one that draws big crowds and is, therefore, liable to turn rowdy. On duty that night were Rick Abath and Randy Hestand, who were aged 23 and 25 respectively, at the time.
According to the museum’s website, the “guard on duty broke protocol and allowed them through the employee entrance.” Based on a request by the fake police officers, the guard (the website doesn’t say which one) even stepped away from his watch desk. The Netflix docuseries on the robbery released this year — “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” — claims that there was an emergency button located on the guards’ desk that could have been used to alert authorities, the real ones, at any given point. But stepping away from the desk meant that those on duty that night could not use it.
Instead, they found themselves overpowered by the thieves, who allegedly proclaimed, “Gentleman, this is a robbery,” before proceeding. The thieves went on to handcuff and tie up the guards in the basement of the museum. After disabling the security cameras, they got down to work stealing the 13 pieces of art. Most of the pieces that were taken were from the museum were from its Dutch Room, including Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee“ and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black“; “The Concert” by Vermeer — which was one of very few paintings the Dutch master is known to have made — Govert Flinck’s “Landscape with an Obelisk“; and an ancient Chinese bronze Gu, or beaker.
The museum is said to have had motion detectors, which recorded the thieves’ movements, particularly in the Dutch Room. And the Netflix documentary explores the idea of an inside job — one of several unproven theories — using a list of the number of times the motion detectors went off that night as the foundation for that theory. In the Short Gallery, on the same floor as the Dutch Room, five Degas drawings and a bronze eagle finial were stolen. Manet’s Chez Tortoni was taken from the Blue Room.
After spending 81 minutes helping themselves to the works of art, the thieves are said to have departed from the museum at around 2:45 a.m, but not before they allegedly made two separate trips to their car with the artwork in tow. What’s been listed as odd in several reports about the heist over the years is that the thieves appear to have left the most expensive work of art in the museum untouched: Titian’s (Tiziano Vecelli) The Rape of Europa, which was hanging in a third-floor gallery. They also appear to have attempted to remove the flag of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from its frame but were unable to do so. Instead, they appear to have “settled” for a bronze eagle-shaped finial, or ornament.
It was only when the guards on the morning shift arrived to relieve Abath and Hestand of their night duty that anyone else noticed something was wrong. The night watchmen remained handcuffed and trapped in the basement until the police arrived on the scene at around 8:15 a.m. Authorities were initially suspicious of the two guards on duty that night since art crimes of this magnitude typically require an inside informant. On his part, Abath has long denied any role and in 2015, the New York Times reported that he had generally been cleared as a person of interest in the case.
Of course, the accusations did impact him, though. “You know, most of the guards were either older or they were college students. Nobody there was capable of dealing with actual criminals. But that night two cops rang the doorbell. They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in. They said, ‘Are you here alone?’ And I said, ‘I have a partner that’s out on a round.’ They said, ‘Call him down.’ And they said, ‘Gentlemen this is a robbery,’ … Ultimately, I’m the one who made the decision to buzz them in. It’s the kind of thing most people don’t have to learn to cope with. It’s like doing penance. It’s always there,” Abath told NPR in 2015.
In 2005, Robert M. Poole of the Smithsonian magazine wrote: “What continues to perplex those investigating the Gardner mystery is that no single motive or pattern seems to emerge from the thousands of pages of evidence gathered over the past 15 years. Were the works taken for love, money, ransom, glory, barter, or for some tangled combination of them all? Were the raiders professionals or amateurs? Did those who pulled off the heist hang on to their booty, or has it passed into new hands in the underground economy?” There are no answers to the questions Poole raised, even 16 long years after his article was published in the Smithsonian Magazine. There have been several theories and leads and characters, though. That’s a story for another day.
Even today, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the empty frames remain — a testament to was lost during the early hours of March 18, 1990, and also a symbol of hope that they may yet be recovered.
Since the investigation around this art crime hasn’t reached a conclusion yet, and keeping the long list of trails and possibilities in mind, we think this particular heist warrants its own mini series. We will continue to explore it in future posts.