Throwback Thursday: The Day After the Gardner Museum Heist

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” via Wikimedia Commons

If March 18, 1990, was the day Boston woke up to find some of its most priceless art had gone missing, then March 19, 1990—25 years ago today—was the day the newspapers starting asking where it had gone, and why.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an occasion that carries all the more interest because, of course, the stolen art works still remain at large. In recent months, the FBI has suggested that it knows who took the paintings, pointing a finger at New England and Philadelphia crime families. However, the Bureau admits, when it comes to locating the works themselves, the trail has gone a bit cold.

The paintings were stolen in the early hours of March 18, so it took newspapers until March 19 to begin processing the news. Back when the crime was fresh, investigators and reporters wasted no time running through a stream of theories, now familiar to those who have followed the case for a quarter century. A common thought, put forward in analyses in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, was that the thieves were working on behalf of someone else, someone who knew exactly which paintings from the Gardner collection he or she wanted. Why else would they bypass other expensive works for such a specific set of pieces? From the Times:

The thieves apparently went into the museum with a shopping list of generally small-scale Dutch and Impressionist paintings. In doing so they passed up the Italian works for which the museum is best known, including Titian’s ”Rape of Europa,” which has been called ”arguably the greatest painting in America” by Peter C. Sutton of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Less was reported about the two guards who let the thieves into the museum, though the Globe noted that they had already been “questioned extensively,” which suggests that suspicion had already fallen, to some extent, on the idea that the thieves had help on the inside. It was a suspicion that would only grow in the years that followed.

It’s interesting that reports from the first day after the theft, in some ways, look very similar to news reports 25 years later. Still, reporters sift through competing theories on who organized the heist and why.

The difference, perhaps, is that with the statute of limitations long past, the goal, for investigators and probably for readers too, has shifted. The U.S. Attorney’s office has said it will consider offering immunity to the thieves in exchange for the works. Before, we wanted answers and perhaps justice. Now, we just hope—somewhat wearily—to find the paintings. After decades of tracing the wildest theories, the only thing that could really shock followers of this case is to find the actual artwork.