March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.
Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.
The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.
The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:
- The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
- A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
- Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
- The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
- Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
- Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
- La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
- Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
- Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
- Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
- Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
- Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
- Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.
The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.
The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.
Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.