The Art of the Story

Twenty years ago this month, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suffered the largest art heist in history. The crime remains unsolved.

The Art of the Story

Photo Illustration by Marco Prozzo

The story always begins with the late-night visit by fake cops. The guards always get bound with duct tape and lashed to basement pipes; the thieves always spend a luxurious 81 minutes cutting and smashing their way to a fortune in rare paintings, sketches, and bronzes; the motley suspects always appear in a virtual perp walk; the FBI always reminds the public about the $5 million reward; and museum leaders always plead, via press release, for clues to the whereabouts of the world’s most famous missing art.

Twenty years have passed since the night the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum became synonymous with nefarious mystery. Since then, it’s been all heist, all the time.

The case is unforgettable for its diametric, diabolic opposites: The thieves did so little, and got away with so much. They didn’t have to rappel through a ceiling or dance among laser beams or drop smoke bombs. They dressed up in costume, drove down to the Fens, rang a buzzer, and told a lie. Then they walked away with more than $200 million in treasure.

Thirteen pieces were taken that night: five paintings, five drawings, an etching, an ancient beaker, and a bronze eagle finial that once topped a Napoleonic battle flag. The oldest item is more than 3,000 years old, the youngest about 130. They were created centuries and cultures apart, in the Netherlands, France, and China. The artists worked in oils and charcoal and metal and ink, and the importance of their creations is almost incalculable.

For nearly a century, these works had a home in the Fens, and then one morning — March 18, 1990 — they didn’t. Boston dimmed a bit that day not because a couple of bad guys pulled off an audacious feat, but because they severed our relationship with irreplaceable artistic beauty. “Thousands of people are now unable to experience these works of art,” says Gardner curator Alan Chong. “Something that might inspire people — that might transform lives — is missing.”

All that remains are microscopic bits of paint, and canvas, and the frames — those famously vacant frames. The frames remain hanging not per Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will and its legendary mandate that her collection never be changed, but rather because they represent the hope that the masterpieces will be recovered.

“We see them as placeholders,” says Anthony Amore, the museum’s director of security since 2005. “They’re going to be filled again.”

Investigators have chased leads from Milton to Maine to Las Vegas to Japan. They’ve convened a grand jury. They’ve reminded the public, year after year, about the Holy Grail of incentives to come forward with information: a $5 million reward from the Gardner, plus immunity from the feds. At this point, everyone just wants to see the art back where it belongs.

What are the chances? “If this were any other type of property, I’d be pessimistic about getting it back,” says special agent Geoffrey Kelly, the FBI’s lead investigator on the case for the past nine years. “But art can stay hidden for decades before it comes back.”

Meanwhile, the Gardner’s security has never been tighter. Guards undergo extensive background checks and training. Cameras “of every size and capability” are hidden throughout the museum, equipped with night vision, low light, covert, pan, tilt, zoom — all the latest technology. Those are just a few of the changes. “I know of a number of larger institutions that don’t have anything close to what we do,” says Anthony Amore, who became the security director five years ago and has obsessively built a massive case database that he revisits daily. The museum has theft insurance now, too. Big lesson, brutally learned.
Heist hotline: If you have information on the Gardner theft, call the FBI at 617-742-5533 or Anthony Amore at 617-278-5114, or e-mail


High above the north door of the Dutch Room hangs a painted wood sculpture of a beggar on his knees, appealing to St. Martin. A Bavarian artist made the piece around 1520, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought it in Paris in 1897, and 15 Boston schoolchildren now stand before it on a bright January morning in the year 2010. The children look up at the sculpture, the beggar looks up at the saint, and from atop his trotting horse the saint looks out on the quiet room.

“The one on the ground looks very poor,” one of the fifth graders says, meaning the beggar. The girls and boys have walked over from Maurice J. Tobin Elementary, a public school in Mission Hill, to participate in a museum program that teaches critical thinking through the analysis of art. The students have been told nothing about the sculpture, not even the title; their assignment is to describe what they see. “His clothes is not very good-looking — there’s holes,” the one boy continues. “The lady on the horse is very well dressed.”

The students spend a few minutes politely debating whether the longish-haired figure on horseback is in fact male or female. Isn’t he a little too pretty to be a man? Doesn’t the rider’s sidesaddle pose mean it’s a woman? “I don’t know,” a boy says, “but it makes me think of Christopher Columbus.” Nearby hangs a large Rembrandt self-portrait in oils, from 1629. Noting the artist’s nearly shoulder-length hair, a girl deduces the sculpted figure on horseback isn’t a woman at all. They all take a moment to think about that. “That horse is so happy about something,” a boy says, and then everyone lines up single-file and heads down to the basement classroom, for some sketching.

The museum’s upper chambers and corridors carry on in monitored silence. Hidden cameras watch from every angle. Blue-blazered guards hold their stations, with instructions to listen and observe, tempting though it may be to chat with visitors. That’s what the volunteers in the yellow “Ask Me” buttons are for. “How often do people ask about the stolen art?” one volunteer is asked. She says, “Well, we’re supposed to say we’d rather not focus on the 13 pieces we don’t have but on the 2,500 pieces we do.”

This time of year, it’s hard not to think about the heist. Boston naturally revisits the Gardner’s unlucky 13 — as well it should. Unless the missing art looms large in the public consciousness, it might never be found.

The volunteer does have a point, though. The museum may have lost exquisite pieces, but it’s still a respite of expressed genius, rarities at every turn — “Isabellaland,” the writer Francine Prose once called the four-story replica of a Venetian palace and its eclectic, intimately arranged contents. “The Gardner Museum is not only interesting in itself but also as an icon, a symbol, and a distillation of what makes Boston interesting: the tension between Puritan abstemiousness and our acquisitive passion for things, between Yankee self-denial and southern European sensuality,” she wrote in the New York Times.

The Gardner has the country’s only Piero della Francesca fresco and what is reported to be the country’s only Piermatteo d’Amelia, Annunciation, not to mention stunning works by Rubens, van Dyck, and Rembrandt. (Gardner’s protégé, the art scholar Bernard Berenson, called Rembrandt’s aforementioned self-portrait “one of the most precious pictures in existence” when he urged her to buy it in 1896.) Titian’s Europa has been called the most important Italian painting in America.

There is Raphael’s Pietà in oil on wood, and also Michelangelo’s Pietà in black chalk on paper. One of the oldest pieces is Giotto’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The galleries and halls are otherwise filled with irreplaceable treasure spanning 30 centuries: tapestries, bureaus, busts, scrolls, tiles, chairs, chalices, mantelpieces, columns, candlesticks, choir books, letters, lace, pennants, windows, photos, friezes, scepters, coffers, plates, glass, andirons, manuscripts, sofas, textiles, swords, and more paintings, all arranged by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. She started collecting in her late 40s and she did not stop thinking about her art until her death, at age 84, in 1924.

She died in her summer bedroom, at the southeast corner of the museum’s fourth floor. The room today contains a conference table and overlooks the construction of the museum’s new 70,000-square-foot wing, designed by the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano. Scheduled to open in 2012, the addition will house a concert hall as well as the museum’s educational and community programming, leaving the palazzo for the purpose Isabella had in mind: a showcase for the art, “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

The Gardner has had a few key moments in its 107-year history. March 18, 1990, was one of them, and this is one of them. Not since Isabella Gardner premiered her museum home on New Year’s Day 1903 has the place projected such momentum. Twenty years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a group of public school fifth graders participating in a Socratic discussion of 16th-century sculpture. Twenty years ago, in fact, the Gardner seemed to be sinking — slowly, almost imperceptibly, like Venice.

At the time of the heist, the museum lacked a climate-control system, an oversight that exposed the art to corrosive fluctuations of temperature and humidity. There was no fundraising or membership strategy, not even a finance officer. The museum’s leaders rarely applied for grants (apparently asking for money was considered uncouth), and some of the staff stonewalled change. Even the café was failing. To foster improvements in that kind of atmosphere — well, good luck.

Then along came a couple of thieves.

The 1980s and early ’90s were good years for art crooks. Between 1985 and 1988 alone, the number of thefts reported to Interpol doubled. The illicit international art trade had become a $1 billion-a-year business. Thefts drove up prices, which drove up the cost of insurance. Like a lot of smaller, private museums, the Gardner wasn’t covered for theft. Nor did it have a particularly sophisticated approach to hiring and training its guards or fortifying its valuables.

The conditions were almost ideal for what happened. In fact, given the climate for thievery, the prospect of a burglary was daunting enough for Anne Hawley, the Gardner’s new director, to nearly turn down the job. “You cannot get a night’s sleep,” she told the Globe at the time. She had been in her new position for six months when her worst fears played out in duct tape and bravado.

The theft put a harsh spotlight on the importance of museum security, of course, but it revealed other problems, too. At the time of the heist, Hawley and the Gardner’s newly expanded board of trustees were already strategizing a renaissance; the crime forced them to confront an urgent need for deeper community outreach — not just concerts, but also lectures and school programs. “We really stepped up the public work because we wanted people to know what was here, what we were about,” Hawley says. “We wanted to bring back the kind of life that had been here in the beginning and that stopped when Gardner died.”

There was also the unpleasant need for money. At the time, the endowment stood at nearly $27 million, generating only $1.3 million a year toward the $2.6 million it cost to run the Gardner. The heist may not have galvanized the community at large in terms of giving, but the trustees and the art world began to rally, and within a year the museum had secured $700,000 of the $6 million needed for a climate-control system, mostly through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “They had a program that we fit right into, and that was fortuitous,” Hawley says. “It was the professional cultural leadership in this country that really got behind the Gardner.”

Building on that momentum, the Gardner in the next two years opened a special-exhibitions gallery, featuring John Singer Sargent’s restored El Jaleo, and sponsored its first artist-in-residence, poet Martín Espada. “We were at a watershed moment anyway,” Francis Hatch Jr., then the trustees’ president, told reporters, “but the theft made it sharper.”

At the 10-year mark, the museum consulted experts in all the “legacy programs” — music, horticulture, contemporary art and artists, education and scholarship — and devised a blueprint for the future. Activities were expanded from Sunday chamber concerts to after-hours mixers, special exhibitions, and educational partnerships with nearby public schools. Attendance increased 30 percent; 178,400 people visited the Gardner last year. The endowment did nothing but climb; today, it stands at $94.7 million.

At the time of the heist, the Gardner had 921 members; last year there were 3,476. “This is one of those places you always drive by and never get invited inside,” Mayor Tom Menino told the crowd during the Piano ceremony. He was joking, of course, and a little bit wrong. More Bostonians are getting invited inside than ever before.

Some are getting inside without ever setting foot in the Fens. More than 3,900 fans follow the museum on Facebook, and the Twitter streams @GardnerTheft and @gardnermuseum have picked up 1,891 followers and counting. The popularity of the museum’s classical music podcasts — people around the world download the concerts — suggests an ever-widening reach via the Gardner’s website. In the tradition of succès de scandale, heist-inspired books, websites, and documentaries keep a certain fascinated attention on the museum.


And now, we build, trustee president Barbara Hostetter said at the Piano ceremony in January.

Outside, construction crews were laying the foundation of the wing that stood in detailed miniature on a Tapestry Room display table. If everything goes as planned, the $114 million glass-and-copper-clad addition will bring an airy balance to the palazzo, whose interior may be magic and wonder but whose exterior is as about as exciting as a cardboard box.

The new building will extend 50 feet from the palazzo, a respectful yet intimate distance, as in conversations, Piano said. The formidable iron fence will come down and a part of it will be donated to Mount Auburn Cemetery. Visitors will enter not from the Fenway, but rather from Evans Way Park, amid gardens and a new greenhouse. A horticulture classroom will overlook the greenhouse, and there will be two 600-square-foot artist-in-residence apartments and conservation labs. The café and museum shop will be moved and expanded. The Gardner’s own narrative will be centralized for the first time, in an information space called the Living Room. “Beauty is not just romantic; beauty is intense experience,” Piano said at the unveiling. “Beauty is one of the things that can compete with the big emotions like power. When beauty achieves that kind of intensity — this is what we’re trying to do here, in a modest way.”

The bonus for Boston is “a lot more civic space,” Hawley says. The educational programs’ classroom will move from the basement to a large, light-filled area. The museum will have room to work not only with children but also with their families. “It’s our job not to be a brand or to be surfing the zeitgeist but to play a deep role in these legacy areas and just stay with it, to be able to respond to community needs,” she says.

Not long ago, she came across a group of fifth graders who participate in the arts education program. When Hawley asked one student if this was her first time at the Gardner, the girl said, “I’ve been coming since second grade!” So Hawley is talking not just about field trips, but also about the creative potential that’s unleashed when students build a lasting relationship with art.

Maybe all of this would have happened without the events of 20 years ago, but it’s more reasonable, and romantic, to think otherwise, to draw meaning from the fact that Isabella Gardner hung a signature coat of arms that features a phoenix, that mythical bird that rose from the ashes.

It’s been suggested that as the Gardner becomes a museum for the next generation it install an exhibit dedicated to the heist. But to memorialize that “barbaric act,” as Hawley once called it, would be opportunistic, sensationalistic — throwing dirt on the coffin.

Better to let the empty frames hang, the calendar turn, and the schoolchildren make sense of mounted saints until the art finds its way home.


Art History

What Was Lost & Why It Matters