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The Great Gardner Art Heist

Updated on August 12, 2016
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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Most famous and successful art heist

In the early morning hours of March 1990, two men stole 13 valuable pieces of art from the Gardner Museum and got clean away. The art was never seen again and is still being sought, making this the most famous art heist in American history.

I don’t remember hearing about this but maybe you did. In the early hours of a March morning in 1990, in Boston, 2 men, dressed as police officers knocked on the doors of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Museum and were let in by a security guard. Once inside the men, tied up the two security guards in the basement and preceded to steal 13 pieces of art, leaving the frames strune about on the floor. To this day, those pieces of priceless art are still missing. Where are they? That’s the mystery.

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Art Thieves usually aren't too smart

Usually art thieves are not really a smart lot. They are into the theft but don’t really think through what to do with the art afterwards. The theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre is a case in point. The thief thought that he would be lauded as a hero by “returning” the Mona Lisa to Italy. Since Leonardo da Vinci was Italian, the thief thought that the painting had been stolen and ended up in France. He even expected a reward. Instead he was arrested. Rarely does a thief know what to do with famous art after the theft. And that is how they are eventually caught. Somehow this isn’t the case in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Museum theft.

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Why these pieces?

Among the paintings and pieces stolen are some of the most valuable paintings in the world. However, some of the pieces stolen don’t really seem to fit a “type”. Usually a thief will pick one style or one genre, like Baroque or Renaissance. But not in this case. It is one of the baffling details of this heist. Some of the items were relatively low-value knick-knacks. The FBI still has an ongoing investigation after 26 years, into this odd art heist and the museum is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the return of the art.

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A Vermeer

Among the pieces stolen is The Concert by Jan Vermeer. Since there are only about 35 known paintings by Vermeer, this one is valued at over $200 million. It is beautiful and rare and relatively small; 28 inches by 24 inches. Did they choose it because of its size or its value?

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A Lady and Gentleman in Black
A Lady and Gentleman in Black | Source

Rembrandts

Also taken was The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt. It is considered Rembrandt’s only seascape painting and worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Larger in size than the Vermeer; 64 inches by 51 inches, it is awesomely beautiful and valuable. Also stolen was A Lady and a Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt. This painting is not larger, 51 inches by 42 inches, but they both would have been cumbersome to steal.

Chez Tortoni
Chez Tortoni | Source

A Manet

Chez Tortoni by Manet was stolen as well. Considered very valuable but completely different in genre from the Vermeer and the Rembrandts. Also a small piece; about 10 inches by 13 inches. Did the thieves like Impressionist paintings too or was the size convenient?

Landscape with an Obelisk by Flinck
Landscape with an Obelisk by Flinck | Source
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Have you ever heard of this art theft before?

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Less valuable pieces

The rest are considered considerably less valuable that the first 4 but by no means less loved and less irreplaceable. One is Landscape with an Obelisk by Flinck, the Baroque painter and former pupil of Rembrandt. The size is 28 inches by 21 inches. Also a Self-Portrait etching by Rembrandt about the size of a postage stamp: 1 ¾ inch by 2 inches. Now why would they choose a piece so small when they had two other larger more valuable Rembrandts? Next is La Sortie de Pesage by Degas; a watercolor drawing, and Cortege aux Environs de Florence by Degas; also a watercolor drawing. They both look to be preparatory drawings for future paintings and not complete works. Program for an Artistic Soiree 1 and 2, both by Degas that are drawings on paper, as well as Three Mounted Jockeys by Degas, 9 inches by about 12 inches, which look to be preparatory drawings for paintings with some pastel work on the jockeys.

Ku vessel
Ku vessel | Source

Confusing knick-knacks

The next two pieces are the most confusing. It almost looks like the thieves stole bric-a-brac off the table. One is Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessel, 10.5 inches high and the other is a Bronze Finial of an Eagle that was the topper for a flagpole; also about 10 inches. Both small and relatively insignificant. As you can see, the choice of pieces to steal was somewhat strange and obtuse; especially when you consider that there were many pieces on the walls somewhat more valuable that some of these.

Isabella Steward Gardner, art collector

Isabella Steward Gardner built up her collection during her lifetime and arranged them in her home the way she enjoyed most. In her will her art collection was to remain arranged exactly as she left them. With this in mind the museum officials decided to hang the frames of the missing pieces empty on the walls until the paintings and other pieces were returned. If you are interested The Gardner Museum teamed up with the Google Art Project to create a virtual tour of the museum with the empty frames.

Napoleon Flag finial
Napoleon Flag finial | Source

FBI investigators still at work

The investigators did eventually find the two thieves. They have since died but none of the missing art has yet been found. They believe they got some video footage of one of the thieves who visited the night before the heist doing a trial run, but the footage doesn’t help much as you cannot see the man’s face. If you want more, there is a YouTube video from FBI Special Agent in Charge, Richard DesLauriers.

Artwork isn’t like stealing jewelry or money or gold. It is unique and documented. You can’t just walk into a pawnshop with it and expect to sell it. Usually thieves have to sell their stolen merchandise to a fence or middleman, who then sells it to a third party with deep pockets and few morals, or at least few questions. This is where the chain breaks down. If the thieves are known, wouldn’t their contact be found out as well? In this case, the middleman was never found. Or at least not yet.

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For more info

The FBI website page devoted to the theft: FBI Gardner Art Theft webpage.

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The current suspect...

After all these years the FBI has been concentrating on the Connecticut home of Robert Gentile, an aging mobster, who is thought to have been connected to the art heist. However, they searched his home and grounds three times, the last time being May 2016, and still found no sign of the artwork. Apparently the statute of limitations on prosecuting thieves or even buyers of stolen goods has passed, the art is still missing. If they came forward now, no one could be prosecuted for the crime. Seems a shame to me but I for one would love to see the works back where they belong.

We may never know what has happened to the missing art, but it doesn’t stop people from looking. Remember there is a $5 million reward for information and that’s not peanuts. Until we know for sure that the Vermeer, the Rembrandts, and other artworks have been destroyed, there is always hope they will someday be recovered, and returned to the pleasure of public viewing.

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Art Heist Comments

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      lawrence01,

      You are right, the "stolen to order" did come up a number of times but the FBI and the authorities in Art and Antiquities Trafficking say there just is no proof that such an underworld type exists. Still you have to wonder. You know some of my favorite episodes of Lois and Clark or other super-type villains was when you find them hoarding great works of art in some secret underworld bunker. Not likely? Maybe. Intriguing? Yes. It may be a hundred years from now when we finally find the truth (or our grandkids do). Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Denise

      Maybe I've seen 'oceans twelve' too many times, but I couldn't help the thought 'Stolen to order' coming up!

      How else can a Vermeer, two Rembrandts and a Manet vanish?

      We may never know what happened, but didn't the FBI think one of the security guards was in on it (for a while at least)

      I don't think they've been destroyed, but whether we'll ever know where they are is a different story.

      Enjoyed this read

      Lawrence

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      teaches12345,

      It would make a great novel. Maybe with the ending that the paintings are found. I certainly hope that is something that comes true someday soon. It is a crying shame that they are gone and the public can't enjoy them anymore. Like many, I hope they aren't destroyed or damaged. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      2 years ago

      This is a mystery and the makings of a great novel. I vaguely remember this heist. I recall the film The Thomas Crowne Affair regarding stolen paintings, mainly for the sport but also for insurance collection. Well done on this post!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thanks, Larry. Keep a eye out and you may get the reward. LOL.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting overview.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      FlourishAnyway,

      So true. And it doesn't hurt to get the awareness out there. Who knows but that you may walk into someone's home see a familiar painting and make a report... ending in you receiving the $5 million reward! Wouldn't that be nice!

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 years ago from USA

      A fascinating tale that makes you wonder just where they are. Hiding in plain sight perhaps?

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