The story seems ripped from the plot of a classic Hollywood caper. But the notorious art heist actually happened right here in Boston almost 14 years ago.
On the night after St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, two men disguised as Boston
police officers made their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway,
handcuffed the two security guards on duty and locked them in the basement. The
thieves then proceeded to snatch up 13 priceless works of art worth an estimated
$300 million, making it by far the biggest art theft in U.S. history.
The works, which include masterpieces like Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (pictured below right) and Vermeer’s The Concert (top right), as well as pieces by Degas and Manet, have never been recovered. Oddly enough, the thieves passed over most of the Renaissance paintings, including the museum’s most valuable piece, Titian’s The Rape of Europa, which has since been voted the city’s most significant work of art.
The culprits were smart enough to make off with the surveillance video from the heist. Since then, the FBI has followed up hundreds of leads on the case and a $5 million reward has been offered for the safe return of the paintings. Suspects have included art thief Myles Connor, former Boston Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger and even the IRA.
The museum’s founder—socialite and art collector Mrs. Gardner, who built the Venetian-style edifice to house her extensive art collection—stipulated in her will that nothing about the galleries should change after her death. Because of this provision, bemused visitors often come face-to-face with the empty frames and spaces where the purloined masterpieces once stood.
Over the past year, the museum has been celebrating the centennial of its founding. This month, though, marks that infamous anniversary from the Gardner’s past—and you can bet there won’t be any grand commemoration.