Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft

An empty frame remains where The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was once displayed

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft was an art theft that occurred in the early hours of March 18, 1990, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. A pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers tricked the museum security guards into granting them access to the building. They proceeded to tie up the guards and steal thirteen works of art worth an estimated $500 million, making it the largest private property theft in history. The event lasted 81 minutes, which happened as the city was preoccupied with Saint Patrick's Day celebrations.

The stolen works were among many purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner during her lifetime, and as with all the art she purchased, were intended to be left on permanent display at the museum with the rest of her collection. Among the stolen works was The Concert, one of only 34 known works by Vermeer in the world and thought to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting at over $200 million. Works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Govaert Flinck were also stolen. Since the collection and its layout are permanent, empty frames remain hanging both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for when they are returned.

Despite efforts by the U.S. Attorney's Office released a new video showing what they believe to be a dry run of the heist. Along with this announcement, the FBI stated that the previous two suspects were now deceased.


  • Robbery 1
  • Stolen artwork 2
  • Investigation 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Around 12:00AM on Sunday, March 18, 1990, a car pulled up near the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum along Palace Road.[1] Two men with fake police uniforms waited for at least an hour in the car, perhaps trying to avoid being noticed by people leaving a St. Patrick's Day party nearby.[2] Later at around 1:00AM, security guard Richard Abath returned to the front desk after patrolling the museum to switch positions with the other security guard. The two guards were the only people in the building. At this time, Abath opened and quickly shut the Palace Road door, claiming he “did it to make sure...that the door was securely locked...[he] was trained to do it that way.” He claims security logs would show that he tested the door on other nights as well. The FBI seized the logs, but has declined to comment on what they show.[2]

At 1:24 AM, one of the two men outside pressed the buzzer near the door and ordered: "Police! Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard." Abath knew he should not let uninvited guests inside, but he was unsure on whether the rule applied to police officers. “There they stood," Abath said in his manuscript, "two of Boston’s finest waving at me through the glass. Hats, coats, badges, they looked like cops." With his partner on patrol, Abath decided to buzz in the men.[2] When the intruders arrived at the main security desk, one of them told Abath "You look familiar...I think we have a default warrant out for you." Abath stepped out from behind his desk, where he had access to the only alarm button in the museum to alert police. He was quickly asked for his ID, ordered to stand facing a wall, and then handcuffed. Abath believed the arrest was a misunderstanding, until he realized he hadn't been frisked before being cuffed, and one officer's mustache was made of wax.[2] The second security guard arrived minutes later and was also put in handcuffs. He asked the intruders "Why are you arresting me?" "You're not being arrested," was the reply. "This is a robbery. Don't give us any problems and you won't get hurt." The thieves proceeded to bring the guards to the museum's basement, where they handcuffed them to pipes and wrapped duct tape around the their hands, feet, and heads, leaving nose holes for breathing.[3]

Since the museum was equipped with motion detectors, the thieves' movements throughout the museum were recorded. After tying up the guards, the thieves went upstairs to the Dutch Room. As one of them approached a Rembrandt painting, a local alarm sounded, which they immediately smashed. They pulled Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1629) off the wall and tried to take the wooden panel out of the heavy frame. Unsuccessful at the attempt, they left the painting on the floor. Next they cut Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee out of the frame, as well as A Lady and Gentleman in Black. They removed Vermeer's The Concert from its frame and Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk. Additionally, they also took a Chinese bronze gu from the Shang Dynasty.[3]

Elsewhere in the museum, not far from a portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, they removed five Degas drawings and a finial in the form of an eagle. The finial lay at the top of a Napoleonic flag, which they attempted to unscrew from the wall, but failed.[4] To get to the flag, they passed by two Raphaels and a Botticelli painting.[3] Manet's Chez Tortoni was also stolen from its location in the Blue Room. Motion detector records show that the only footsteps detected in the Blue Room that night were at 12:27 and again at 12:53 a.m. These times match to when Abath said he passed through on patrol. The frame for the painting was found on security chief Lyle W. Grindle's chair near the front desk.[2]

The thieves made two trips to their car with artwork during the theft, which lasted 81 minutes. Before leaving, they visited the guards once more, telling them "You’ll be hearing from us in about a year," although they were never heard from again.[1] The guards remained tied and handcuffed until the police arrived at 8:15 AM later that morning.[3]

Stolen artwork

Altogether, thirteen pieces were stolen at an estimated loss of $500 million, making the robbery the largest private property theft in history.[5] Empty frames remain hanging in the museum, both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for when they are returned.[6] The selection of works puzzles the experts, specifically since more valuable artworks were available.[6] Geoffrey J. Kelly, an FBI agent assigned to the case for over eight years, stated "It’s difficult to understand why the thieves took what they did, an eclectic collection...They were certainly in the museum long enough to take whatever they wanted."[3] Titian's The Rape of Europa, which is one of the museum's most well-known and valuable pieces, was not stolen.[3] Due to the brutish ways the criminals handled the robbery, cutting the painting from their frames and smashing frames for two Degas sketches, investigators believe the thieves were common criminals, not experts commissioned to steal particular works.[2]

The following are the thirteen stolen works:[7][8][4]

Image Item Artist Year Size Notes
The Concert Vermeer c. 1664-1666 Oil on canvas
72.5 X 64.7 cm
One of only 34 known works by Vermeer in the world. This was Gardner's first major acquisition.[8] It is thought to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting, with a value estimated at over $200,000,000.[9]
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee Rembrandt 1633 Oil on canvas
161.7 X 129.8 cm
The painting is Rembrandt's only known seascape.[1]
A Lady and Gentleman in Black Rembrandt 1633 Oil on canvas
131.6 x 109 cm
The museum believes this painting to be a Rembrandt, however some scholars, including the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, say it is not.[3]
Landscape with Obelisk Govaert Flinck 1638 Oil on wood
54.5 X 71 cm
The painting was formerly attributed to Rembrandt until being associated with his pupil, Flinck.[10]
Chez Tortoni Manet c. 1878–1880 Oil on canvas
26 X 34 cm
La Sortie de Pesage Degas Unknown Pencil and watercolor on paper
10 X 16 cm
Self-Portrait Rembrandt c. 1634 Etching
1.75 x 2 in
postage-stamp sized
Not to be confused with Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1629) oil painting also at the museum, which the thieves attempted to steal but were unsuccessful.[3]
Cortege aux Environs de Florence Degas c. 1857-1860 Pencil and wash on paper
16 X 21 cm
Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 Degas 1884 Charcoal on white paper
24.1 X 30.9 cm
Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 Degas 1884 Charcoal on buff paper
23.4 X 30 cm
Three Mounted Jockeys Degas c. 1885-1888 Oil on brown paper
30.5 X 24 cm
An ancient Chinese gu Unknown Shang Dynasty
c. 1200-1100 BC
Height: 10.5 in.
Diameter: 6.12 in
Weight: 2 lbs 7 oz.
The oldest of all the artworks stolen.
A bronze eagle finial Unknown c. 1813-1814 Height: 10 in. Taken from the top of a Napoleonic flag. May have appeared like gold to the thieves.[8] The museum is offering a $100,000 reward for this piece alone.[11]


Announcement on stolen artwork from the museum
Sketches of the suspects

Ever since the robbery, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been leading the case, with probes stretching across the world involving Scotland Yard, Japanese and French authorities, museum directors, and art dealers. They have conducted hundreds of interviews, and have even published a coded message in the Boston Globe to an anonymous tipster. Multiple rumors have circulated around Whitey Bulger and the Irish Republican Army being involved; however, the FBI has followed several leads, and none of them have produced any concrete results.[1]

The museum has offered a reward of $5 million for "information that leads directly to the recovery of all of [their] items in good condition",[12] which remains on offer more than a quarter-century later. Along with the bounty offer, the museum stresses that the paintings be kept in good condition by whoever has them. Museum director, Anne Hawley, stated “the works should be kept at a steady humidity of 50%—not more or less—and a steady temperature of around 70°F. They need a stable environment...They should be kept away from light and they should be wrapped in acid-free paper.” Hawley also noted to avoid rolling the paintings, which will crack the paint, “otherwise the paintings will be compromised and their value decreased. The more repainting that needs to be done when they are returned, the worse it will be for the integrity of the paintings."[1]

On March 18, 2013, on the 23rd anniversary of the heist, the FBI released new information they had gathered. They believed the thieves were members of a mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. Some of the art may have been offered for sale in Philadelphia in the early 2000s; however, their knowledge of what happened to the works after the attempted sale is limited.[13][12]

On August 6, 2015, police released a newly discovered video from the night before the theft, that is believed to show a dry run of the robbery. Two men appear on the tape; one of them remains unidentified, while the other has been confirmed as Richard Abath, a security guard on duty the night of the heist. The video appears to show Abath buzzing the unidentified man into the museum twice within a few minutes. The man stayed for about three minutes in the lobby, then returned to a car and drove off.[14] Police say the video opens new lines of investigation, and The New York Times points out that it draws new attention to Abath as a potential collaborator.[15] A few days after this announcement, FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven revealed that the two suspects of the theft, previously identified by the FBI but not revealed publicly, are deceased. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kowenhoven declined to identify the individuals.[16]

In popular culture

Due to the high profile of the museum theft, it has been referenced and parodied in many different works.


  • Stolen - 2005 documentary, the theft is the subject of the show, which in a slightly different version had earlier appeared on Court TV.[17]
  • The Blacklist ep. The Courier (No. 85) - James Spader's character is seen near the end of the show sitting in front of what looks like The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Given the nature of the character this may be intended to be the original.
  • The Simpsons ep. "American History X-cellent" - One of the stolen works, The Concert, is found in the collection of Mr. Burns.
  • The Venture Bros. ep. "Victor. Echo. November." - The supervillain, Phantom Limb, attempts to sell The Storm on the Sea of Galilee to a collector for ten million dollars.
  • Drunk History - The story of the theft is told in the "Boston" episode.
  • American Greed - The theft was the subject of a 2008 episode.


  • Trance (2013) - The theft of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee is referenced at the beginning of the film. Later, the Rembrandt painting is again seen during one of the hypnotic visions, along with The Concert and Chez Tortoni.


  • Irreplaceable (2009) by Charles Pinning - The theft is central to the plot of the novel. Linked to a fictitious theft from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the story is known for its unconventional approach to solving the Gardner heist.
  • The Art Forger (2012) by Barbara A. Shapiro - The novel features the theft.[18]
  • Dutch Reckoning (2013) by Michael G. West - A mystery featuring the reluctant amateur sleuth Tommy Shakespear, who was dedicated to Isabella Stewart Gardner's grand niece, the poet Isabella "Belle" Gardner, a friend and mentor to the author.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Robert M. Poole (July 2005). "Ripped from the Walls (and the Headlines)".  
  2. ^ a b c d e f Kurkjian, Stephen (March 2013). "Decades after the Gardner heist, police focus on guard". Boston Globe. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Esterow, Milton (May 2009). "Inside the Gardner Case". ArtNews. 
  4. ^ a b "Lost Art: Photos of the Paintings Stolen from Gardner Museum". LiveScience. Retrieved October 8, 2015. 
  5. ^ Menconi, David (March–April 2012). "Hot Canvases: A new book shatters myths about art theft". Harvard Magazine. 
  6. ^ a b McShane, Thomas & Matera, Dary (2006). "18. No Boston Tea Party at Isabella's". Stolen Masterpiece Tracker. Barricade Books.  
  7. ^ "Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 27, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c "FBI - Have You Seen These?". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved September 8, 2015. 
  9. ^ Stolen, a documentary about the theft of The Concert, from the PBS website.
  10. ^ Vigderman, Patricia. The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Hol Art Books. p. 151.  
  11. ^ "Official Gardner Museum Site - Theft News". Isabella Stewart Garndner Museum. Retrieved October 8, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Comcowich, Greg (March 18, 2013). "FBI Provides New Information Regarding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art Heist: Information Sought from Those in Philadelphia and Connecticut Who May Have Knowledge of the Art's Location" (Press release). Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division. 
  13. ^ "FBI Says It Has Clues in '90 Boston Art Heist". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  14. ^ New video shows possible dry run for Gardner Museum art heist
  15. ^ Jonathan Jones, Is America's greatest art heist about to be solved?, The Guardian, 7 August 2015.
  16. ^ "FBI says two suspects who stole $500m in art from Boston museum are dead". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2015. 
  17. ^ Dreyfus, Rebecca (April 13, 2006). "Stolen: Is it still a masterpiece if no one can find it?" (PDF). Stolen pressbook. International Film Circuit. Retrieved June 24, 2010. 
  18. ^ Carter, Maxwell (December 28, 2012). "Rogues' Gallery". The New York Times. Retrieved September 22, 2013. 

External links