Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On March 18, 1990, two men committed the largest art heist in history. Millions of dollars’ worth of art disappeared and haven’t been seen to this day. And until yesterday, the men who committed the crime were unknown.

In brief, this is how it happened:

In the wee hours of March 18, 1990, many of the good people of Boston were still celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. No one thought much of two men sitting in a car idling outside the Isabella Steward Gardener Museum. At 1:24 a.m. the two men walked up to a side entrance of the Museum and pressed the button. 

“Police!” one of them said. “Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.”

At the time, two security guards worked inside the four story building. One of the guards, a college student, sat at the main security desk. He believed they were the police and buzzed the uniformed men inside. Once they reached his desk, one of the intruders looked at the guard and said, "You look familiar...I think we have a default warrant out for you."

By accusing the guard, they tricked him into stepping out from behind his desk and away from the only alarm button in the museum. They ordered him to face the wall and handcuffed him. When the second security guard arrived minutes later, he was also handcuffed.  He asked them why he was being arrested.

"You're not being arrested," one of them replied. "This is a robbery. Don't give us any problems and you won't get hurt."

The thieves wrapped duct tape around the guards' hands, feet, and heads, leaving nose holes for breathing. Then they took the guards to the museum's basement and handcuffed them to pipes.

For the next eighty-one minutes, the thieves went through the museum picking and choosing art. Eighty-one minutes is a long time for a crime in progress. Some of what the men did during that time is still a mystery. A step-by-step map of the thieves’ progress through the museum can be found here:

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Priceless works of art were taken that night. This is a list of the pieces that were stolen: Vermeer's The Concert, which is the most valuable stolen painting in the world; two Rembrandt paintings, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman in Black; A Rembrandt self-portrait etching; Manet's Chez Tortoni; five drawings by Edgar Degas; Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk; an ancient Chinese Qu; and a finial that once stood atop a flag from Napoleon's Army.

For more than two decades, this crime was unsolved, but yesterday the FBI announced it believes it has found the identity of the thieves. The heist was possibly carried out by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England. The stolen paintings were moved by that organization through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. The whereabouts of the artwork is still unknown. The FBI believes some of the art may have been sold in Philadelphia in the early 2000s. No specifics are being given about the crime, including names. The men who committed the crime may never be arrested because the statute of limitations has been reached. But the feds are casting a wide-net across the New England-area to find the art by publicizing the paintings through posters, videos, and setting up special hotlines and social media channels.

Many wonder why the crime hasn't been solved before now. The uniforms the men wore were obviously fakes. They didn't wear masks. They'd been seen in the idling car. And what happened to the art work? Things like that can't be sold in public, although I'm sure there is a large underground market for such things.

Just goes to show you that reality often reads like a work of fiction. 

If you want to read more about the crime, here is a Boston Globe article:

If you want to read more about the FBI’s recent announcement just Google Gardener Museum Art Heist. It’s all over the news.

1 comment :

  1. It's Gardner not Gardener just so you know. Great article none-the-less


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