n 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was looted and a $10 million reward still stands for the recovery of many legendary artworks. This article will provide you with all you need to know about one of the most notorious art heists in history, including what happened on the day, what was stolen, and where the case stands today.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
- 2 Frequently Asked Questions
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
Recognized as one of the most famous and long-standing art heist investigations, the Gardner Museum heist is one to remember. In 1990, approximately 13 artworks were finessed out of the museum and the case remains unsolved ever since.
The reward currently stands at $10 million, given that the value of the stolen artworks amounts to well over $500 million.
How did these mysterious thieves manage to pull off one of the most notorious acts of all time? Who are these masterminds? Where are the stolen artworks today? Below, we will delve into the nitty gritty details surrounding the heist and all the information around what we know about the theft.
Dawn of the Heist
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist occurred on March 18 in 1990 in the early hours of the morning. According to reports from the two guards who were on duty that shift, they had seen two police officers, who were in fact, the criminals in disguise. The “police officers” claimed that they were responding to a distress call in the area, so the guards assumed that it was only normal for them to be hanging around the museum.
According to the report from the museum, one of the guards broke the museum protocol and allowed the officers through the employee entrance of the building.
Both security guards were then handcuffed and left tied up in the basement. 81 minutes later and the thieves successfully accomplished their mission of stealing 13 artworks. The thieves’ movements were documented through the motion detectors in the museum.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was established after the art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who amassed a superb art collection in her name. The museum opened in 1903 and ever since the collection has grown. The art collector passed and left the institution with a $3.6 million endowment with her will stating that the organization of the artwork was not to be altered and no artworks or objects were to be purchased or sold in the collection.
Around the 1980s, the museum saw a decline in its financial health, which resulted in a subsequent lack of maintenance around the building’s climate control and basic facility maintenance. The museum was also short of an insurance policy at this point.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discovered a conspiracy by local Boston criminals to loot the museum and they were alerted in 1982. The museum then ramped up its security and installed 60 infrared motion detectors with a closed-circuit TV system containing four surveillance devices around the museum’s perimeter. Unfortunately, no cameras were installed in the interior of the building since this was too much of an expensive decision for the board of trustees.
The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum viewed from the Fenway in 1904; Detroit Publishing Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In an effort to balance this lack of security, the museum hired more guards and installed a button at the front desk to call the police in cases of emergency. A common security feature for other museums at the time was a fail-safe system, which involved the night guards placing hourly phone calls to the police to inform them that the museum was secure.
In retrospect, this would have been a better system for the museum, however, a review by an independent security consultant stated that the museum was “up to scratch” with its security but still could use more improvements.
By 1988, the museum’s finances were still struggling and at some point, even the security director from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recommended inputs for a security upgrade. Unfortunately, the requests were denied along with the salary raise for the security guards for the purpose of attracting better-qualified individuals. This implied that the position was occupied by those who were not necessarily fit for emergency situations like an armed heist.
After subduing the guards in under 15 minutes and threatening them by stating that they knew where they lived, the thieves moved on to execute their heist at 01:35 in the morning. The thieves’ movements were first recorded in the Dutch Room, which was on the second floor, around 01:48 A.M.
From the time stamps, the police assumed that the thieves were most likely waiting to make sure no one was coming to catch them.
When the criminals approached the paintings, the warning alarm for people who stood too close to the artworks went off, but the thieves smashed it. From this room, they stole a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) by smashing it on the marble floor to break the glass frame, and thereafter, they removed the canvas from the stretcher using a blade.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) by Rembrandt; Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Along with this Rembrandt work, they also took a self-portrait and left it standing against a cabinet, presumably due to it being too large to transport. In place of this, they stole a mini self-portrait by Rembrandt, which was exhibited under the large one.
It was clear that the thieves knew the value of a Rembrandt artwork.
The empty frames of the two stolen Rembrandt paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) on the left and The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) on the right; Chris Dignes, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Other works taken from the Dutch Room include The Concert (1664) by Johannes Vermeer, Landscape with Obelisk (1638) by Govert Flinck, as well as a Chinese gu (vessel). The thieves split up and one of them entered the Short Gallery, which was located on the far end of the second floor.
When the thief’s partner finished in the Dutch Room, he joined his accomplice in the Short Gallery where the duo attempted to steal the Napoleonic flag.
They did not succeed in this effort, but they did steal the eagle finial, which was mounted on the pole of the flag. Here, they also grabbed five sketches by Edgar Degas and another famous artwork from the Blue Room called Chez Tortoni (1875) by Édouard Manet.
An empty frame remains where Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) was once displayed. Picture provided by the FBI showing the empty frames for missing paintings after the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990; Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Before the heist ended, the thieves did check on the guards to ensure they were comfortable and alluded to their intention of solely grabbing the works without a hassle and without harm. They attempted to cover their tracks by taking with them the video cassettes that contained a record of their entrance and data print-outs from the motion detectors.
However, the information still remained on the hard drive, which was left behind.
It is assumed that Chez Tortoni was the last artwork to be snatched since the painting’s frame was found abandoned at the security director’s desk. The dynamic duo then moved the artworks out of the museum between 02:40 and 02:45. The security guards who showed up later that morning discovered the precarious situation and called the security director, who then showed up at the museum and called the police once he found that no guards were at the watch desk.
The police arrived on the scene and searched the building, where they found the guards tied up in the basement.
Stolen Artworks and Values
A total of 13 artworks were stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, and in 2000, the estimated value of the missing works rose from $200 million to $500 million. Later that year, the value was estimated to be around $600 million.
Considering the amount of time that has passed since the heist, the value of the artworks has most definitely climbed.
The artworks stolen from the Dutch Room were considered the most valuable with Vermeer’s painting of The Concert sitting at an estimated $250 million. The thieves aimed to steal very specific works as seen in the theft of Rembrandt’s only existing seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which had an estimated worth of $140 million.
The small self-portrait of Rembrandt had already been stolen twice before and was returned once in 1970, only to be stolen again in 1990.
The other painting stolen by Rembrandt was A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633). It is believed that the thieves stole the Landscape with Obelisk (1638) by Govert Flinck believing that it was also the work of Rembrandt. The other art object, the Chinese gu, was known to be one of the museum’s oldest artworks that dated back to the 12th century, during the Shang Dynasty era but carried a smaller value of approximately several thousand dollars.
An FBI “Seeking Information” poster for the stolen artworks of Manet, Rembrandt, and Flinck after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990; Artwork by various artists, last deceased 1917; poster by unknown FBI staff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
All the sketches by Degas that were taken were all works on paper executed in charcoal, ink, pencil, and washes. The total combined value of these drawings was around $100,000. The 25-centimeter-tall Imperial Eagle from the Napoleon Imperial Guard’s flag was also stolen.
The museum currently offers a separate reward of $100,000 for any information on the object’s return.
An official announcement on the stolen masterpieces from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, 1990; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Experts who reviewed the thieves’ selection of artworks were left confused since they stole a combination of artworks of varied values and overlooked other high-value artworks by masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael.
Was this an intentional tactic?
The thieves never crossed the third floor where the most valuable painting hung, The Rape of Europa (1560-1562) by Titian. The missing works’ empty frames remain in their original places, awaiting their respective returns. The table below shows a list of the stolen artworks.
|Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)||Christ in the Storm on the sea of Galilee (1633); A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633); Portrait of the artist as a Young Man (c. 1633)|
|Govaert Teuniszoon Flinck (1615 – 1660)|
|Landscape with an Obelisk (1638)|
|Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)|
|The Concert (1663 – 1666)|
|Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)||Leaving the Paddock (c. 19th century); Procession on a Road near Florence (1857 – 1860); Study for the Programme (1884); Study for the Programme De La Soirée Artistique Du 15 Juin 1884 (1884); Three Mounted Jockeys (1885 – 1888)|
|Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751 – 1843)|
|Eagle Finial (1813 – 1814)|
|Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883)|
|Chez Tortoni (1875)|
|Unknown Artist||Chinese Gu (12th century)|
Suspects and Leads
Since the statute of limitations expired in 1995, prosecutors state that anyone who willingly returns the stolen artworks and who partook in the 1990 art heist would not be prosecuted. The FBI assumed control of the case due to the concern that the artworks had great potential to have been transported across state lines. The thieves committed a “clean” heist and left behind no traces of DNA or prints for police to analyze.
The fingerprints at the scene were especially unreliable, as it was inconclusive as to whether they were the employees’ fingerprints or the thieves.
Witnesses in the area provided a description of the criminal they thought to be approximately 1.75 to 1.78 meters tall, in his late 30s with a solid build. Some of the suspects, as mentioned below, have been investigated, but none have proven spot-on.
Among the suspects investigated include one of the security guards present at the heist, Rick Abath, leader of the Winter Hill gang, Whitey Bulger, Brian McDevitt, and various members and associates of the Merlino gang.
Sketches of the suspects involved in the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft provided by the FBI; Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the theories about who executed the heist was said to be Bobby Donati, an American criminal who was murdered in the same year as the heist during a gang war with the Patriarca family. He was flagged as a suspect after the famous art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. conversed with the authorities and dropped Donati’s name while in prison.
He also claimed that he allegedly collaborated with Donati on past heists and claimed that Donati was particularly interested in the “Finial Eagle”.
Connor also theorized that Donati hired “lower-level criminals” to execute the heist. Connor wished to help the authorities with the case in exchange for his freedom, but this was never going to happen and the FBI were redirected to an antique art dealer (and criminal) named William P. Youngworth.
Mugshots of Robert Donati, Boston gangster, c. 1960s; Boston Police, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The FBI raided Youngworth’s store and home in the 1990s and this drew in the journalist Tom Mashberg who took an interest in the art dealer around 1997. In August of 1997, Youngworth summoned the journalist on the claim that he had proof that he could return the missing works but under certain conditions of course.
According to Mashberg, Youngworth took him to a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he showed him a storage unit containing several tubes. Youngworth then opened one of the tubes and showed him a canvas, which Mashberg identified as Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
He also caught Rembrandt’s signature on the ship’s rudder and cracking on the edges of the canvas, which in his eyes, seemed to be the real deal.
An FBI “Seeking Information” poster for the stolen Rembrandt painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990; Artwork by various artists, last deceased 1917; poster by unknown FBI staff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mashberg published his experience in the Boston Herald and after several months, the FBI discovered no traces of any cylindrical tubes or artwork at the storage unit. Youngworth did leave Mashberg with paint chips that did match paint from Rembrandt’s era, however, they were not the same oil paints used in Rembrandt’s painting.
The painting was also coated with a heavy layer of varnish and could not have been rolled up as easily as Mashberg described it.
The FBI began negotiating with Youngworth but he would not comply unless his demands were met and included his immunity along with Connor’s freedom. The authorities needed more proof for this to happen, however, and Youngworth again supplied them with paint chips from the 17th century as well as color photographs. The paint chips did not match Rembrandt’s painting, but could have very well been from Vermeer’s The Concert.
An FBI “Seeking Information” poster for the Vermeer painting, The Concert (1658-1660), after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990; Artwork by various artists, last deceased 1917; poster by unknown FBI staff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fast forward to 2014, investigative reporter Stephen Kurkjian inquired with one of Donati’s superiors, Vincent Ferrara, who stated that the FBI was wrong for suspecting Merlino’s gang and that Donati was the one who organized the heist. He further states that Donati visited him in jail three months prior to the heist and promised him that he was going to “do something” to get Ferrara out of jail.
Exactly three months later, Ferrara heard the news about the Gardner Museum heist, after which Donati paid him another visit claiming that he was definitely involved and that he had buried the artworks. His plan was to begin negotiations once the investigation “cooled down” but this never happened because Donati was murdered.
So far, all hands and testimonies pointed to Donati, who was no longer alive.
Recent developments on the case revealed a potential accomplice or affiliate to the heist. In 1991, a man named Jimmy Marks was murdered and years later, it was discovered that his death may have been linked to the 1990 Gardner heist. The case went cold but since then new clues have emerged that could lead to the thieves, as stated by Bob Ward.
The FBI has stated that the stolen artworks probably moved through various organized crime circles in Philadelphia, but the trail went cold around 2003. The chief of security at the Gardner Museum, Anthony Amore, received a tip from an anonymous person urging the officials to investigate the murder of Jimmy Marks, who was a famous career criminal.
Marks was murdered 11 months after the heist on a February evening while entering his apartment in the suburb of Lynn, Massachusetts. The perpetrator unscrewed the light above the door so that Marks could not see and soon, Marks was shot in the “classic mob style hit”. He was shot two times in the back of his head.
Before Marks was killed, it had been reported that he was bragging about being in possession of two stolen paintings as well as claiming that he hid some other artworks away. Marks was also previously involved in a bank robbery around the 1960s and was also a known drug dealer.
The possibility that Marks knew of the real identity of the thieves or whoever organized the heist was significant, since he did have connections to certain individuals who were suspected of being involved at the time.
According to news reports, Marks was acquainted with the late Robert Gaurente (Bobby), who was good friends with Donati and may have partaken in the transportation of the stolen artworks from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia.
In 2015, the case gained further insight into Marks’ involvement with the heist after Gaurente’s widow declared that her husband killed Marks. Gaurente passed away in 2004 and later on, his widow passed away in 2018. According to reports on the account, Guarente’s widow appeared very emotional when speaking about Marks.
During this time, another suspect was called out by Gaurente’s widow, Robert Gentile, who was a Connecticut gangster with a long criminal record.
In 2012, after many lies and denials by Gentile, the FBI raided his home and even took along with them ground-penetrating radar equipment. All they found were drugs and guns. In a raid of Gentile’s Manchester home, the FBI found a list of the stolen artworks with their black-market value but nothing else. Gentile states his innocence multiple times regarding knowledge of the paintings but according to some, and the Gardner Museum, there are still individuals who believe that he was the missing link. Gentile passed away in September 2021.
Another account by Paul Calantropo details how Donati met him in the Spring of 1990. Calantropo was an old school friend of Donati’s and also an appraiser of jewelry. According to Calantropo, Donati visited him to show him the Finial Eagle and request its worth. Calantropo was allegedly stunned and recognized the bronze object as one of the famous stolen artworks from media reports.
The former Assistant US attorney, Robert Fisher, who supervised the heist investigation from 2010 to 2016, did not believe Calantropo’s story and stated that until the stolen artworks are found, every theory is still just a theory and that more proof is needed to even make Donati the prime suspect. A former convict who entered into an agreement with the museum claimed the opposite, that Calantropo’s story was true. He further stated that Donati trusted no one and that he believes that Donati buried the artworks and that “one day someone is going to open up a wall and find them”.
The case of the 13 missing artworks continues to be a sensational investigative affair for many art heist theorists. Only time will tell where the missing artworks are and who was responsible for the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner heist.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Artworks Were Stolen During the 1990 Gardner Heist?
Approximately 13 artworks were stolen during the 1990 Gardner heist, including works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Govaert Flinck, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Philippe Thomire, and Édouard Manet.
What Is the Value of the Missing Artworks From the 1990 Gardner Heist?
The missing artworks from the 1990 Gardner heist are said to be valued at around $500 to $600 million.
Who Are the Lead Suspects in the Gardner Museum Heist?
The lead suspects were Bobby Donati and Robert Gentile along with other possible unidentified accomplices. The latter suspect, Robert Gentile is no longer at the forefront of the investigation although some still believe his involvement. There is no solid proof around a prime suspect.
Nicolene Burger is a South African multi-media artist, working primarily in oil paint and performance art. She received her BA (Visual Arts) from Stellenbosch University in 2017. In 2018, Burger showed in Masan, South Korea as part of the Rhizome Artist Residency. she was selected to take part in the 2019 ICA Live Art Workshop, receiving training from art experts all around the world. In 2019 Burger opened her first solo exhibition of paintings titled, Painted Mantras, at GUS Gallery and facilitated a group collaboration project titled, Take Flight, selected to be part of Infecting the City Live Art Festival. At the moment, Nicolene is completing a practice-based master’s degree in Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town.
In 2020, Nicolene created a series of ZOOM performances with Lumkile Mzayiya called, Evoked?. These performances led her to create exclusive performances from her home in 2021 to accommodate the mid-pandemic audience. She also started focusing more on the sustainability of creative practices in the last 3 years and now offers creative coaching sessions to artists of all kinds. By sharing what she has learned from a 10-year practice, Burger hopes to relay more directly the sense of vulnerability with which she makes art and the core belief to her practice: Art is an immensely important and powerful bridge of communication that can offer understanding, healing and connection.
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