It’s a mystery that has captured the world for over thirty years.
On March 18th, 1990, two police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Confident, assured and seemingly there on official business, they made their way over to the staff tasked with watching over the gallery that evening.
Before long, however, the night watchmen on duty discovered that the two men were not police officers at all, as one of the men made a chilling announcement: ‘Gentlemen, this is a robbery’.
What followed was a heist that would go down in history, as the two men managed to take hold of a number of rare artworks, including pieces by legendary artists such as Rembrandt, Manet and Vermeer. It’s estimated that the loot had an overall value of around half a billion dollars.
Alarms were raised as soon as possible and the authorities descended onto the Boston gallery, but it was too little, too late – the thieves had vanished and taken the pieces with them.
It was a shocking turn of events and one that was near enough unheard of at the time. Of course, there had been art robberies before, but never to this extent – never had gallery thieves made off with pieces of such rarity and such monetary value. Even more shocking was that, as days of the investigation turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, the two men were able to evade capture.
That was thirty-one years ago. To this day, the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery of 1990 remains unsolved, the culprits behind the theft still unidentified.
Many wonder how this could have happened, though the watchmen present that evening do have a theory: by their own admission, the gallery’s choice of watchmen made them vulnerable to theft from the start.
One such man is Rick Abath, who was watching over the gallery on the night of the ordeal.
“Most of the guards were either older or they were college students,” he says, “Nobody there was capable of dealing with actual criminals.”
Perhaps the thieves were aware of this weakness in the running of the gallery when they planned their attack. After all, Abath has described the relative calm with which the perpetrators approached the watchmen.
“They said ‘Are you here alone?’, I said ‘I have a partner that’s out on a round’.”
Rick recalls being told to call his shift partner down, as the men made their now-infamous declaration to the pair.
“Gentlemen, this is a robbery.”
Rick and his shift partner were then held captive by the pair, who duct-taped their eyes and chin before handcuffing them to the electrical box. They were trapped there for seven hours, until police eventually arrived at 8:15am the following morning.
The robbers themselves, however, were in and out in less than an hour and a half. A short window of time, but one that allowed them to steal thirteen iconic artworks – boldly making two separate trips between the museum and their getaway car in order to transport the loot.
Among the stolen works were such pieces as Edgar Degas’ Leaving The Paddock, Govaert Flinck’s Landscape With An Obelisk and the famous self-portrait of Rembrandt Van Rijn. The museum features a full list and photographs of the missing works on the website, alongside a note which reveals that they are yet to give up on the hope of seeing the pieces returned to the gallery.
“The Museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art,” the page reads.
“The Museum is offering a $10 million dollar reward for information leading directly to the safe return of the stolen works.”
Their undying commitment to the idea that the case may one day be solved and the works returned is further marked by thirteen empty frames around the gallery, which serve as a reminder of the pieces that once hung in their place.
Those in charge of the gallery and involved in the ongoing investigation hoped that a documentary regarding the crime may lead to the uncovering of new information. The much-anticipated This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist hit Netflix earlier this year, though there has been no word yet on whether or not the film led to the reveal of any new evidence or – better yet – an arrest.
However, those who do know any information are still being encouraged to speak in confidentiality to the authorities.
For now, this mystery remains unsolved – and remains the most shocking theft in gallery history.
This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist is available to watch on Netflix now.