Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery
It’s been 25 years since the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in March 1990. And while investigators still don’t know who pulled off the greatest art theft of the century at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, they have a pretty good idea how they did it.
There were a number of visits to the museum, probably by women. They would use women because women blend in much more easily. Among art museum visitors, women far outnumber men. They could have been sent alone or in pairs. They might even be part of a bus tour group. They bought the guidebooks and rented the audiocassettes for the ape tours and drifted around looking over the galleries that were going to be hit and the paintings that were going to be taken. Meanwhile somebody else was checking out the museum security: What guards are on at night? When do the shifts change? When is the best time to go in? That kind of inside information could have been picked up in casual conversation from someone who had worked at the museum. When they had it all together, they picked the date. A weekend is always a favorite time for criminals and a holiday weekend such as St. Patrick’s Day is perfect.
–Charles Moore, Massachusetts private investigator who specializes in art thefts
The time is 2:00 A.M., March 18, 1990. Tires hiss on Fenway Park Drive as a light ram sweeps across Boston. Through the mist streetlamps cast a pale glow upon celebrants from St. Patrick’s Day parties as they straggle down Palace Road past the walled gardens and tall windows of the four-story, pale-brick Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Within the darkened structure rain spatters on the skylights of a balconied Venetian courtyard where, amid Greek and Roman sculptures, a spectacular display of flowering yellow jasmine trees, blue cineraria, creamy white lilies, and Chinese-red nasturtiums heralds the approach of another Easter.
Below the courtyard, in a long corridor in the pitch-black basement, two museum guards lie prone on the concrete floor, arms and legs manacled to heating pipes, rendered deaf, mute, and sightless by broad strips of duct tape wound around their heads. In a second-floor gallery several individuals kneel in front of a huge marble fireplace. The burnished red-tile floor is covered with flecks of oil paint and shards of splintered glass as they use knives, hammers, and chisels to strip some of the world’s most famous paintings from their gilt frames. It’s 3:30 A.M. before the last of the loot is carried out the side door and the gang vanishes. It is the most spectacular art theft of the century and the greatest robbery of modern times.
A wondrous oasis of serenity, charm, and unsurpassed beauty, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is unique among the world’s great museums. It is the only private art collection in which the building and the entire collection are the creation of a single individual, an exuberant, flamboyant socialite who shocked, scandalized, and utterly fascinated Victorian Boston. Behind the public facade, however, was an intelligent, complex woman, a warm-hearted friend and generous benefactor to young writers, artists, sculptors, scholars, and musicians.
After numerous visits to the European capitals with her husband, Jack Gardner, a wealthy Boston businessman, she became an avid collector of fine art. “The greatest need in our country was Art,” she once wrote. “We were a very young country. There were few opportunities of seeing beautiful works of art. I decided to make it my life’s work if I could.”
In 1898 Mrs. Gardner bought land on what was then the edge of the muddy, cattailed Fenway swamps of Boston’s Back Bay. On New Year’s Day 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum officially opened with a concert by the 50-piece Boston Symphony Orchestra. Guests — some of whom had been brought by private train from New York — were overwhelmed by balconies hung with flame-colored lanterns, candlelit galleries, masses of spring flower, and splashing fountains. Since that day the Gardner Museum has drawn art lovers from all over the world.
During its public hours, each of its 25 galleries and cloisters is constantly scrutinized by one or more uniformed guards hovering discreetly in the background. At night the guard staff is reduced, but an elaborate electronic security system maintains an invisible silent vigil. While some guards go back many years, there are also college students who prize the opportunity to work part-time amid such treasures. (A tradition begun by Mrs. Gardner, who preferred Harvard students to Pinkerton men as her museum guards.)
Just before 5:00 P.M. on the evening of March 17, 1990, the booming notes of a Japanese temple gong signaled the closing of the museum. Huge steel doors were bolted, and soon the museum was deserted save for two young guards, a musician and an art student. One of the guards, carrying a flashlight and a portable radio, patrolled the galleries. The other sat behind a watch desk next to the Palace Road service entrance monitoring the security-systems alarms and TV cameras. High on the wall on the outside of the building, a small TV camera continuously scanned Palace Road and the side entrance. On this night Anne Hawley, the museum’s recently appointed director was dining on nearby Beacon Street. Hawley was the first director in the Gardner’s history who did not dwell in the fourth-floor apartment once occupied by Isabella Stewart Gardner. Although it was after midnight when the dinner party ended, Hawley considered stopping at the museum, but decided instead to return to her suburban home.
At 1:24 A.M. on Sunday morning someone rang the bell at the Palace Road entrance. On the TV monitor the guard at the watch desk saw two men in police uniforms. He pressed the button on an outdoor speaker system and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Boston Police,” one man said. “We have a report of a disturbance in your outdoor compound. Have you seen or heard anything?”
“No,” replied the guard. ” It’s been quiet here all night.”