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The Gardner Heist (1980)

One of the greatest art thefts in history occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardner Collection is world-class, and the theft is quite tragic. The value of the thirteen pieces stolen is estimated at $300 million. A $5 million reward is still offered for information leading to the return of the art pieces in good condition.

At 1:40 AM on March 18, 1990, two men disguised as Boston Police Officers deceived a security guard and were allowed entry into the museum. The two imposters were professional thieves, and by circumstance the two security guards were inexperienced college students. One of the thieves pretended to arrest the guard at the security desk, and when the 2nd guard arrived from his patrol, they were both handcuffed and bound with duct tape. The security guards were then taken to the basement and strapped to separate columns.

A Priceless Degas Painting Stolen from the Gardner Museum
Priceless Degas Painting

The thieves systematically targeted specific artworks, going up to the second floor and splitting up. They took three Rembrandts, and tried to remove a fourth from its frame. They pried five Degas drawings from their mountings, and attempted to remove a Napoleonic banner from its case and instead took the gilded eagle atop it. The thieves made two trips to a small car outside with the priceless works at about 2:40 AM, and the guards were not discovered by police until 8:15 that morning.

The mystery surrounding the heist has never been solved, and the works of art have yet to be recovered. Many questions remain unanswered. Was a scuffle outside the museum two weeks earlier a failed first attempt at a robbery? Why didn't the robbers conceal their faces further? Why did the thieves leave paintings of greater value behind? Why did they hastily break open frames and cut artworks and risk destroying them? How did they know where to find the security video tapes and remove them?

In April, 1994, the museum received a $2.6 million ransom note. The sender instructed the museum to reply by placing a "1" in front of the Italian Lira exchange rate in a newspaper, which was done in the May 1st issue of the Boston Globe. A second ransom letter was received acknowledging the signal, but the extortionist likely sensed pressure by the police and FBI, and did not communicate with the museum again. The entire event is quite tragic, and could easily have been the topic of an intriguing episode of Sherlock Holmes.

The artworks stolen include: Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a Self-Portrait; Vermeer's The Concert; Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk; Edouard Manet's Chez Tortoni; Edgar Degas' La Sortie de Pesage, Cortege aux Environs de Florence, Three Mounted Jockeys, 2 sketches called Program for an Artistic Soiree; a gilded Napoleonic eagle ornament; and an ancient Chinese bronze beaker.

A sad result of the robbery are the empty place-marks that remain in the museum. Faded squares mark where the Degas drawings were located for instance. Mrs. Gardner had bequeathed that her house should remain unchanged forever, and her instructions have been complied with.

Contact Information & Address:

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 
280 Fenway, Boston, MA 02115 

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