Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery
In a first-floor gallery named the Blue Room, a thief seized a painting by the French painter Edouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, but ignored extremely valuable works by the American painter John Singer Sargent and the French painters of the 19th century — Delacroix, Corbet, and Corot.
Not until about 3:30 A.M. on Sunday morning did the thieves depart, locking the Palace Road door behind them. The Mass. Turnpike and interstates 93 and 95, which could help them speed to distant parts of the nation, were only minutes away.
About 7:00 A.M. a maintenance worker arrived at the museum and pressed the bell to be admitted. Hearing no reply, he decided that the guards must be somewhere else in the building. About 7:20 a young female guard arrived and was told by the worker that he was still waiting for a response. Together they rang the bell and rapped on the windows.
“Something is wrong!” the newly arrived guard exclaimed.
The Fenway was deserted. They fanned out looking for a public phone for the guard to call her supervisor. About 20 minutes passed before he arrived and used a passkey to enter from a door in the garden. Calling out for the two guards as he made his way through the dark and eerily quiet corridors, he reached the watch desk, noted a broken picture frame on the floor, and saw that the door of the security room had been kicked in. Seizing a telephone, he called the Boston Police and then Lyle Grindle, chief of security.
“We’ve had a robbery,” he told him. “Both guards are missing.”
“Have you called the police?” the security man asked.
“They’re on their way.”
“Don’t let anybody but the police inside,” Grindle said. “I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”
Boston Detective Sergeant Paul Crossen was driving on the Southeast Expressway when he heard the robbery reported on his police radio. He sped to the scene of the crime and took command as police cruisers surrounded the museum.
The first task was to determine what had happened. Had the missing guards been taken hostage? Were they somewhere in the building — dead or alive? Were thieves still in the museum? Might there be a bomb hidden somewhere in the galleries?
With guns drawn and the guard supervisor as their guide, police proceeded to the fifth-floor attic and cautiously moved down from floor to floor through each of the galleries. Nearly 30 minutes later they reached the basement and discovered the two young guards. Badly shaken by their ordeal, they were carried outside to ambulances to be treated before they could be questioned.
City and state police joined forces with the FBI. Descriptions of the two thieves flashed across the country. Airport security guards, major seaport authorities, and U.S. Customs agents at the nation’s borders were alerted. Overseas, Scotland Yard and Interpol, the international police organization with branches in 30 countries, were notified.
Acting museum curator Karen Haas had intended to work a few quiet hours on Sunday. Rounding the corner at 8:30 A.M., she was horrified to find Palace Road jammed with police cars and bomb squad trucks. She and Anne Hawley and Lyle Grindle would spend most of Sunday conducting a painstaking search of the galleries to determine which of the Gardner’s 2,000 paintings, sculptures, and other treasures were missing.
That evening Hawley announced the theft consisted of 12 works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Vermeer, and Flinck and the bronze Chinese Shang Dynasty vase. The loss of the bronze eagle atop the Napoleon battleflag would not be noted until later. The value of the stolen art was estimated at $200 million.