Arts and Culture

25 years later, Gardner art theft remains unresolved

This Wednesday, March 18, marks the 25th anniversary of one of the largest art heists in American history. Nearly 25 years ago, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole over a dozen masterpieces, including works by Vermeer and Rembrandt valued at approximately $500 million. There have been thousands of leads over the years and a $5 million reward offered for the return of the missing masterpieces. Despite extensive investigation, none of the paintings have been recovered, making the Gardner Museum heist one of the nation’s most perplexing unresolved mysteries.

Around 12 p.m. on March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as officers broke into the museum, stating that they were Boston police responding to a call. One of the security guards for the museum broke protocol and allowed the “officers” to enter through the museum’s security door. Ultimately, the security guard was threatened and tied up by the robbers, giving the thieves easy, unrestricted access into the museum’s galleries.

Stolen works included Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and Self Portrait (1634), Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660), Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) and a Chinese vase or Ku. Works by the impressionist artist Edgar Degas and a finial from the pole support for a Napoleonic flag on the second floor were also stolen. Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) was taken from the first floor.

The museum director, Anne Hawley, has been working with ex-con artist William Youngworth who told the FBI directly that he could facilitate the return of 13 prized works stolen from the museum. At a back-channel meeting in 1997, museum board member Arnold Hiatt lent the ex-con $10,000 to aid in the recovery of the missing masterpieces. Working with Youngworth, the FBI has been following leads in Boston, Japan, Ireland and France. In 2013, the FBI announced that they thought they had the identity of the two thieves, and speculated that they were a part of a large crime network operating in New England. The FBI is fairly certain that the artwork was taken to Philadelphia and sold, but have not been able to trace the location of the art from there.

Hawley was one of the first people to see the museum in shambles with frames and glass smashed on the floor shortly after the robbery occurred. Since the time of the incident, the theft has taken an emotional toll on her. She endured death threats in the weeks following the robbery and twice had to evacuate the museum due to bomb scares. Hawley was scared to walk to and from work and was forced to take alternative routes home to avoid being spotted by potential attackers.

Hawley recently revealed that she has plans to retire at the end of this year. The Gardner theft has been both a professional and personal loss for Hawley. The unsolved case has cast a shadow on her tenure and has left her feeling uncertain about the museum’s future.

Despite dozens of false leads and emotional turmoil, Hawley still hopes that the masterpieces will be recovered. The museum plans to continue investigating in the years following Hawley’s retirement and will work closely with the FBI and US Attorney to facilitate the return of the stolen artworks.