At 1:24 am on Sunday, March 18, 1990, two thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces of rare artwork valued at approximately $500 million. Within 81 minutes, the thieves, disguised as policemen, were able to talk their way into the closed museum, detain the guards, steal the artwork, and make their getaway unmolested. Notable among the missing artwork were three Rembrandts, one Vermeer, and five Degas. To this day, the Gardner Heist, the largest art theft in history, remains unsolved.
Isabella Stewart Gardner and Her Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner was not your average Victorian woman. Born in 1840 in New York, Isabella had a privileged childhood, attending private schools in New York and Paris. In 1860, just four days shy of her 20th birthday, Isabella married her friend’s older brother, 22-year-old John “Jack” Gardner Jr.
Gardner also came from a wealthy family, but all the money in the world could not save the couple from heartbreak when their son, John Gardner III, died of pneumonia on March 15, 1865, three months before his second birthday.
Isabella was absolutely devastated and became sick with grief.
Worried about Isabella’s health, doctors urged her to travel. Jack took Isabella to Europe, where she gained a love of both travel and art. The couple never had more children, but spent their energies and money as a patron of contemporary artists and in collecting rare artwork.
One of Isabella’s favorite places to visit was Venice and it was from those Venetian influences that she was to build her museum. Opened on January 1, 1903, the museum that now bears her name, was designed by architect Willard Sears to look like a 15th century Venetian palace. Isabella wanted the museum to be personal, intimate, inviting. The center of the museum is a flower-filled courtyard that allows light to enter all three stories of galleries.
Since Jack died before the museum was finished, it was Isabella who hand-picked where each item was to go. She felt so strongly about her collection that she insisted that after her death, the collection and the museum were to stay unchanged.
Isabella Gardner died on July 17, 1924 at the age of 84. Until the heist in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had remained just as she had left it.
The Gardner Heist
The thieves that were to enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum gave little thought to the wishes of the long-dead Isabella -- they were after loot. At 1:24 am on Sunday, March 18, 1990, two men pushed the buzzer at the side entrance of the museum, beginning what was to be the largest art heist in history.
It was the college-age security guard, Ray Abell, that heard the buzzer. When he looked to see who was there, Abell saw two Boston policemen dressed in authentic-looking blue uniforms, covered by police coats, and topped with police caps. One was tall and stocky; the other shorter and wearing gold-rimmed glasses. Both had mustaches. Although Abell was not supposed to let anyone into the museum, he decided that night to make an exception for policemen.
Inside, the thieves continued their ruse. They asked Abell to call the only other security guard on duty, 27-year-old Ralph Helman, up to the front, which he did. Then the thieves asked Abell to step out from behind the desk – where the panic button was located – with the excuse that Abell looked familiar and they needed to check his ID.
Once Helman joined them, the thieves “arrested” the two security guards by handcuffing them. It was only then that Abell and Helman realized that something was wrong.
Thankfully for the two guards, the thieves did not intend to murder them. Instead, the two thieves duct-taped Abell and Helman’s eyes and mouths and then took them down to the basement. There, the two guards were separated, with one being handcuffed to some pipes and the other to a workbench.
The thieves now had the run of the museum. The thieves went straight to the Dutch Room on the third floor. There they took three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Flinck, and an ancient Chinese vase.
Then they headed upstairs to the Short Gallery, where they took five etchings from Degas, which look more like doodles than finished art. The question remains as why they took those rather than some of the more finished pieces of artwork that hung nearby. And then, very strangely, one thief unscrewed an eagle finial off the top of a Napoleonic flag staff. With a museum filled with priceless artwork, why take that?
The two thieves then headed back downstairs to the Blue Room on the first floor. Here they took just one thing, Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni. That was the last item they were to take.
In a somewhat surprising move, the thieves then went back down to the basement to check on the guards, to make sure they were still bound but also to check to see if they were comfortable. Then, to cover their tracks, the two thieves headed to the security director’s office in order to take the cassettes that had recorded the whole heist. However, they accidentally left their movements on a motion sensor.
At 2:45 am, the thieves made their second and final trip out the side door to their awaiting getaway vehicle(s). No one knew anything was amiss until hours later when another security guard arrived to start his morning shift.
What Was Stolen?
The two thieves stole 13 items from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990. Here is a list of what was stolen.
From the Dutch Room (second floor)
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