It’s impossible to mention a good Art Heist without bringing up the most expensive private art theft of all time: the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The heist celebrated its 23rd anniversary last week, which coincided with a statement released by the FBI, saying they had new information on the case and were narrowing in on suspects. But let’s back up to the beginning of the story, shall we?
La Sortie de Pesage by Edgar Degas
On the night of March 18th, 1990, at around 1:30am, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the museum through the front door, after being buzzed in by the on-duty security guard. They told the night guard he had a warrant out for his arrest, and ordered him to stand up. The guard moved away from his station, and away from the only alarm button that would have alerted police to what happened next. The thieves handcuffed him and the only other guard in the building, who had walked into the scene minutes later. When the second guard asked why he was being arrested, the thieves replied, “You’re not being arrested. This is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.” The two men were duct taped to pipes in the basement of the museum, and weren’t discovered until the following morning. The desperation they both must have felt, knowing they were powerless to stop the heist occurring right above them, must have been overwhelming.
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt Van Rijn
The two thieves spent the next 81 minutes grabbing paintings and drawings off the walls, making two trips to their car to load the stolen artwork. They pulled Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait” off the wall but couldn’t remove it from its wooden frame, so it was tossed to the floor. They had more luck with two other Rembrandt works, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (the latter actually has a fascinating provenance debate over it, as the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam does not believe it to be a legitimate work). They snatched five Degas drawings, a Vermeer (one of only 34 in existence!), “Chez Tortoni” by Manet, an ancient Chinese sculpture, and a finial from a Napoleonic flag. Thirteen pieces in all, totaling over $500 million dollars. See the full list on the on the museum’s website.
The museum left the empty frames of all stolen works on display.
It’s almost eerie, isn’t it?
In May of 2012, a man in Connecticut had his home raided by the FBI in connection with drug charges, but their real aim was to search his property for any of the stolen artworks, as the statute of limitations on the heist had expired. Their search came up empty. The man’s lawyer later contended his client had been set up to sell drugs by the FBI as a ruse to search his home. I love idiots.
Last week, on the 23rd anniversary, the FBI made allusions to having identified those responsible for the theft, and/or in possession of the stolen pieces. The FBI believes the pieces were brought to Connecticut and the Philadelphia (!!) area after the heist. “‘It’s likely that over the years, someone – a friend, a neighbor or relative – has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantle or stored in an attic,’ Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, told a press conference.” My question is, who sees a stolen Rembrandt in their uncle’s study and just assumes everything is kosher? I would rat out anyone, regardless of relation, when it came to stolen art. Also there’s a $5 million dollar reward. So that helps.
The scary and part is that in the intervening 23 years, the paintings and pieces could have suffered immeasurable damage from mishandling and improper storage, or worse, TOUCHING. Anthony Amore, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s chief of security, said in the FBI press conference, “We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It’s time for these paintings to come home.”
Thank you to everyone who sent me articles about these new details in the story: Christine, Lauren, Theresa, and Jess.