At around 1:24am on Sunday 18 March 1990, two uniformed policemen requested access to the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston. When the on-duty guards allowed them entry they were quickly handcuffed then led to the basement where they were left bound. The two men then proceeded to steal several art-works including Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as works by Degas and Flinck and Manet and other historical pieces. After this they escaped with what the Museum believed were thirteen pieces of art-work estimated at $500 million. This would prove to be largest private property theft in history and both the culprits and stolen art-work have never been located.
The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, Massachusetts was established in 1903 by American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardener. Gardener was a philanthropist and patron of the arts who planned the construction of the Museum with her husband Jack, who passed away suddenly in 1898 before their plans were realised. The couple had accummilated a growing art collection which was too large for their house on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, and so decided to build something grander to display their shared love of art and historical treasure.
The Museum was designed in the style of Venetian Renaissance palaces and privately opened on 1 January 1903 to a grand opening celebration that was accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Gardener lived on the fourth floor of the Museum until her death on 17 July 1924. She had created an endowment of $1 million to ensure the future of the museum and made the request that the permanent collection must not be significantly altered. This stipulation was honoured by the curators until 1990 when a significant event in the Museum's history occured.
On Sunday, 18 March 1990 at around midnight, two men wearing fake police uniforms pulled up to the side entrance of the Museum along Palace road in a red Dodge Daytona. They waited outside in the vehicle for an hour, to avoid the throngs of people leaving a nearby party for the St. Patricks Day celebrations. The security guard on duty that evening was Richard Abath, who returned to his position at the front desk at 1:00am from patrolling the museum, in order to be relived by another guard, known as Randy. These were the only two people in the building that night, and Abath then proceeded to quickly open and then shut the door which exited onto Palace Road, something he had been trained to do to ensure the door was securely locked. He later told to police he did this on numerous occasions, and said the security footage from other nights would corroborate this claim.
At precisely 1:24am, one of the two men pressed the buzzer near the Palace Road door and told Abath they were policemen who were responding to reports of a disturbance in the courtyard, and requested to be allowed entry. Unsure of what to do and with his partner on patrol, Abath decided to allow the men entry because they told him they were law enforcement officers and because he could clearly see the men on the security cameras, recognising their uniforms. When the two policemen arrived at the main security desk, one of them told Abath he looked familiar and there was a warrant out for his arrest.
Abath then stepped away from the desk and the men asked him for ID, and he was ordered to face the wall and handcuffed. The panic alarm button was behind the desk and Abath had no away of alerting his colleague. He initially believed the arrest to be a misunderstanding, but when the officers failed to frisk Abath for weapons he immediately became suspicious and then noticed the moustache of one of the officers was made of wax.
When the other security guard appeared minutes later, he too was handcuffed and when he asked why he had been arrested, the men explained neither was under arrest because they were perpetrating a robbery. The motion detectors throughout the museum recorded the movement of the two thieves, which was later used by police to ascertain their sequence of events. The two security guards were taken to the museum basement and handcuffed to pipes. To ensure they couldn't escape, the men wrapped duct tape around their heads, hands and feet.
They then went upstairs to the Dutch Room, and activated an alarm near Rembrandt's Self-Portrait, painted in 1629. They smashed the alarm and then pulled the painting from the wall and attempted to removed the painting from the heavy wooden frame. When this proved unsuccessful, they left the painting on the floor and proceeded to cut The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt's only known seascape from its frame, along with A Lady and Gentleman in Black, both painted in 1633. Next to be removed was Govaert Flinck's Landscape with Obelisk and Vermeer's The Concert, which were cut from the frames along with a Chinese bronze gu from the Shang dynasty.
They then removed five Degas drawings and Manet's Chez Tortoni (1878–80) was taken from the Blue Room. However, the motion detectors showed that the only footsteps recorded that night in the Blue Room were at 12:27am and again later at 12:53am. These time matched with Abath's patrol of the area earlier in the evening, and the frame from the painting was found on the chair of security chief Lyle Grindle, located near the front desk. Elsewhere they stole an eagle finial which sat atop of a Napoleonic flag, which they failed to unscrew from the wall. During the robbery, the thieves made two trips back to and forth to the car to store the artwork, which lasted a total of 81 minutes. When they were ready to leave, they visited the guards in the basement telling them, "You'll be hearing from us in about a year". The guards were eventually released when police arrived at the museum at 8:15am later that same morning.
Because of the possibility the stolen artwork would be taken across state lines, the investigation was conducted by the FBI. Initial suspicions fell on the two security guards who were on duty that night and their possible involvement, and federal agents confiscated the security logs from the previous few nights. Although they had been handcuffed and secured in the basement, it could not be entirely ruled out they were not somehow involved.
Both men were questioned by the FBI's lead agent Geoffrey Kelly, who soon discounted them as suspects because they were considered too unimaginative to have organised the heist. Detectives were puzzled about the selection of artwork stolen, considering there were much more valuable pieces available, which led to the theory the paintings and historical relics were stolen to order for a private buyer.
The thieves passed several well-known paintings, such as two by Raphael and Botticelli as well as the museum's most famous and valuable piece, Titian's The Rape of Europa and it was difficult to understand given how they had more than enough time to steal whatever items they wanted. Because the frames of several exhibits were smashed and the painting's cut away in an almost amateur and brutish manner, many believed the men were not experts tasked with stealing any particular works, but rather opportunistic thugs.
There were many theories on the identity of the thieves and the moviation behind the robbery. One included the theft of the paintings by the Irish Republican Army in order to fund their operations and another was the suspected involvement of criminal Whitey Bulger, who was the leader of the Winter-Hill Gang in Boston, as well as an FBI informant. Many believed Bulger was the mastermind behind the heist, because such a large robbery would not have occur without his knowledge and consent.
A reward of $1 million was offered for "information that leads directly to the recovery of all of items in good condition". The Museum Director, Anne Hawley was the recipient of the letter in 1994, which promised the safe return of the works in exchange for $2.6 million. The letter writer requested the museum publish a code in the Boston Globe's business section if the offer was accepted, but after the message was published nothing more was heard.
The letter was considered genuine because the writer revealed information about the thefts that was not public at the time. In the subsequent years they conducted hundreds of interviews which resulted in the main focus the investigation, which centrered around the theory that the thieves were members of a criminal organisation based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, who moved the paintings out of the state through Conecticut and the Philadelphia areas in the years after the heist.
Even though the five-year statute of limitations had expired and the thieves cannot face charges, the reward was increased to $5 million in 1997, the same year Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg who was investigating the theft when he was contacted by career criminal and antiques dealer William Youngworth, who worked as an associate of New England art thief Myles Connor Jr. Mashberg was driven to a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn to see Rembrandt's stolen painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the darkened warehouse he was briefly allowed to see the alleged painting by flashlight and later given a vial of paint chips to verify what he had seen was the genuine artwork.
Experts then confirmed the fragments were of authentic Dutch 17th-century origin, but not of the stolen painting. Connor told authorities he could locate the missing artwork in exchange for immunity, but his offer was rejected. Because the FBI were unable to determine if the painting was authentic or fake they discontinued dealing with Youngworth and nothing further came of the matter. Some investigators suspected the artwork had become too difficult to sell and was destroyed, explaining why none had subsequently reappeared.
Myles J. Connor Jr. was in prison at the time of the robbery and has told authorities he and his associate, Robert "Bobby" Donati, a Boston gangster, had previously cased the Museum in the 1980's considering a heist. He claimed Donati and David Houghton had overseen the theft without his knowledge whilst he was in prison on a similar theft charge. William Youngworth had allegedly told Tom Mashberg that Bobby Donati and Houghton had masterminded the heist and were the two fake policeman.
Evidence pointing to his guilt includes Donati previously expressing interest in the stolen finial which the thieves spent some time attempting to remove from the wall and being seen at a Revere nightclub in possession of a package which contained police uniforms in the days leading up to the robbery. Donati also visited his boss Vincent Ferrara in prison in the 1990's, and when asked by Ferrara about the artwork Donati told him he "buried the stuff", and would use the proceeds to negotiate his release because rivals were vying for control of the organisation. Ferrera suposedly told Donati to get out of Boston, as he was now in over his head, but Donati refused telling his boss he would wait until the intense investigation had winded down.
However nothing further was known because Donati was abducted by a group of men as he left his house on 21 September 1991. His body was later discovered in the trunk of his cadilac, he had been beaten over the head, stabbed 20 times and his throat had been cut. Youngworth claimed that Donati was on the verge of being a made man of New England-based Patriarca crime family when he was murdered. Rumours abounded that Donati was on the verge of telling police about his involvement and his death was to ensure he kept quiet about the stolen artwork.
In later years Connor told authorities he believed the works had been passed on other other, unknown individuals. He suffered a heart-attack which affected his memory and commented, "I was probably told, but I don't remember,". It is believed some of the stolen artwork, including Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was offered up for sale during the early 2000's in Philadelphia, but nothing more is known of what happened after the attempted sale. Another suspect in the Gardner Museum Theft was Hartford, Connecticut gangster Robert "Bobby the Cook" Gentile, who on numerous occasions expressed his knowledge of the whereabouts of the artwork.
In 2012 he came to the forefront of the FBI investigation and his home in Manchester, Connecticut was search in May of that year. Although none of the stolen works were found, agents did find something incriminating in the basement, in the form of a sheet of paper listing what each of the stolen piece might sell for on the black market. In 2013 the FBI revealed they knew the identity of the thieves, but two years later announced the suspects were already dead.
The security video from the night before the theft was released by the FBI on 6 August 2015. The footage showed what appeared to be two men conducting a dry run of the robbery. Both men were initially unidentified, but one was later confirmed at Richard Abath, the security guard on duty the night of the robbery. In the video, Abath is seen buzzing a man into the museum twice within the space of afew minutes. The man remained in the lobby for around three minutes and then returned to a vehicle parked nearby and drove off.
This seemed to indicated Abath had more of a role in the thefts than originally thought, despite being questioned by the FBI and ruled out as a suspect. It indicated the guards might have been bribed to allow the two thieves entry and were collaborators of the overall plot to steal the art. There were unconfirmed suspicions the other man seen in the footage was Abath's boss, the deputy director of security at the Museum, which would have been against protocol to allow anyone access to the museum after hours.
In December 2015, a tip-off led to an FBI raid of East Boston's Suffolk Downs horse racing track. There were consistent rumours among Suffolk Downs employee who worked there in the 1990's that the stolen artwork was being kept there, however the search found nothing. In January 2016, the FBI threatened Robert Gentile with gun charges, in an attempted to force him to reveal the location of the paintings. During a hearing, federal prosecutors presented, what they called, significant evidence which connected Gentile to the heist. This evidence included Gentile and an associate known as Robert Guarente attempting to use the stolen art to arrange a reduced sentence for a criminal associate. Guarente's wife Elene informed investigators in 2010 that her husband did indeed have possession of some of the artwork, and gave two of the paintings to Gentile before he passed away from cancer in 2004.
In 2016, the Goston Globe learned from another mobster, Bobby Luisi, that Guarente had told him back in 1998 that he had buried some of the Garnder art beneath a concrete slab of a house in Florida. Gentile's home was searched again by the FBI on 2 May 2016, without success. His lawyer has stated emphatically that Gentile had no involvement in the theft of the art, nor any knowledge of its whereabouts and if he did, he would have returned it for the substantial reward money. Another Boston gangster, Louis Royce claimed he was owed a 15% cut of the proceeds for devising the plan of two fake policeman to gain entry into the Museum.
The reward was doubled to $10 million in May 2017, however an expiration date for information leading to the art was set for midnight on 31 December of that year. This was later extended into 2018 because of an increase in tips from the public. Despite the expiration of statute of limitations on the crime, the Federal authorities have reiterated they will prosecute anyone knowingly in possession of the stolen items, but they will not charge anyone who voluntarily turns in the artwork. The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum continues to host the most impressive art collection in the world, with more 2,500 historical, cultural and artistic objects, however it remains more famous for the artwork that was stolen back in 1990.
Written by Nucleus