What Will Happen If the Stolen Gardner Museum’s Works Are Found?

It’s been 30 years this month since the unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist first rocked the city and the art world. Ever wonder what will happen if the 13 stolen artworks are recovered? For the first time, Gardner security chief Anthony Amore offers a step-by-step guide.

Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet, one of the works stolen on March 18, 1990. / Courtesy of Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, Boston (Édouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, about 1875, oil on canvas)

1. Get Them to the Gardner

Once the museum gets the anonymous call or tip it’s been waiting for, there may not be time to wait for a Brinks armored truck to show up at the artworks’ location and shuttle them back home. “It’s just as likely I’d have to put them in the back of my Jeep Grand Cherokee and drive them myself,” Amore says.

2. Handle with Care

If time allows, however, specialists will be brought on-site to package the art—which may be damaged—for transport to the Gardner’s conservation lab. “If any flecks of paint are precarious and might flake off,” Amore says, “we’ve got to make sure none of it is lost.”

3. Authenticate the Art

Upon the works’ arrival at the Gardner, Gianfranco Pocobene, the museum’s chief conservator, will unpack and inspect them, consulting decades-old notes. “Each one has a very specific cracking pattern, like a fingerprint,” he explains. “We need to be 100 percent certain we’re looking at the real thing.”

4. Restore, Refresh, and Rejuvenate

If Pocobene spots paint loss, creases, or tears, he will re-adhere loose paint layers, reweave torn threads using a microscope, and remount the art on new backings, if needed—painstaking processes that could take months.

5. Keep It on the DL

If some of the artwork is returned but negotiations for other missing pieces are still under way, only a few Gardner staffers, on a need-to-know basis, may be made aware of the rescue operation. Of course, none of us will be the wiser, either.

6. Break the News

On the other hand, if all 13 pieces are recovered at once, “my belief is that we would announce that to the world,” Amore says. But don’t get too excited about learning much more about the heist, especially since the museum has offered anonymity in exchange for information leading to the artworks’ whereabouts. “The true story,” Amore says, “might never be told.”

7. Pay Up

With the works recovered and authenticated, the Gardner would disburse the $10 million in reward money being offered. If fewer than 13 pieces come back, the museum would split the reward based on the returned art’s value.

8. Showtime!

The works would once again be displayed at the museum. “When they come back, the crowds will be enormous,” Amore predicts. That means you’d better be prepared to stand in line. After all, this will be the moment we’ve spent a generation longing for.