Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery
For three days the Gardner remained sealed off as FBI specialists dusted for footprints, searched for shreds of clothing or a personal possession that might provide clues. All evidence was sorted, bagged, and flown to the FBI crime laboratories in Washington, D.C. More than 25 FBI agents, including those who specialized in art thefts, were assigned to the case.
The museum had no theft insurance. Not only would the premiums have been prohibitively high, Hawley explained, but Mrs. Gardner’s will prohibited the museum from acquiring replacements for any stolen paintings. Two noted art auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, joined with private corporations in offering a reward of $1 million for information leading to the safe return of the missing art. Hundreds of tips poured into the police and FBI offices from the public, art dealers, and prison inmates seeking to trade information for reduced sentences and paroles.
While curators and art lovers anguished over the loss of some of the world’s most precious paintings, shock waves from the theft reverberated around the world. “So much art theft is kept quiet,” says Joan Norris, the museum spokeswoman. “This theft stripped the silence away.”
According to Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit organization that keeps record of stolen works, “Art theft is a $2-billion-dollar-a-year business in the form of burglaries, gallery thefts, and the looting of archeological sites.”
In the underworld, art has joined drugs, gold, and diamonds as valuable collateral for deals and payoffs. Enormously wealthy South American drug barons pay any price for works of art to hang in their palatial villas. In Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, private collectors pay huge sums for art works without asking where they came from. In Japan, for example, art collectors are entitled to keep any art works that they have owned for more than two years and did not know were stolen.
By far the most baffling aspect of the Gardner theft, however, was why, with the entire museum at their mercy for more than two hours, the thieves passed up so many other valuable paintings and small art objects. Art authorities pointed out that the stolen paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet are so famous that they can never be sold, traded, or displayed in a private collection without instantly being recognized.
Calling it “one of the dumbest robberies ever,” one expert commented that, “the paintings are simply too hot to handle and that makes their street value next to nothing.” He predicted that the paintings would soon be anonymously returned or abandoned in some public building.
Two and a half years later, however, the paintings seem to have vanished off the face of the earth. Neither law enforcement authorities nor art experts believe that there will be a solution soon, though people continue to be questioned.
Charles Moore, a Massachusetts private investigator who in his career has helped recover an estimated $20 million worth of stolen paintings, scoffs at the notion that the Gardner theft was carried out by blunderers.
“Those people,” Moore says, “were heavy hitters, not common thieves. The Gardner theft was a carefully constructed major crime, planned for weeks, probably months. It was a deal that was put together out of town. The two guys who showed up at the door dressed as cops were not locals.
“And there could have been as many as six to eight people involved,” he continues. “Once the guards were grabbed, the thieves owned the museum. They could have admitted other individuals through the Palace Road door. They could use the museum phones to make calls. They probably brought their own portable radios, and they also had the guards’ radios.
“Outside, they probably had a radio-equipped lookout to tip them off about police activity. They also probably had a wheelman to drive the getaway car — but he could have been a mile away in an all-night diner, drinking coffee, reading the morning paper, where he wouldn’t attract attention. Maybe he had a radio, too. When the word came, he returned to Palace Road. When the street was clear, around 3:30, out they came, fast, into the car and were gone.
“The second car — the lookout’s car — pulled out behind them. He would go slow or even pretend to stall until the first car was gone. Then there was a third car, probably a small van. It was waiting close by. The paintings were transferred to that van, which had never been seen near the Gardner, and off they go. It’s only 4:00 A.M., and they’re heading out of town.”
Moore offers an explanation for why more art was not stolen. “Those guys were professionals, but they didn’t know art. They had a list and a floor plan and that was it. They left with what they had been paid to take — except I suspect that the Chinese vase and the bronze eagle were grabbed as small items that could be easily traded.”
In Moore’s opinion, the stolen paintings still may not have reached their destination. “They were taken somewhere that night — it could have been a place in New England. The people who stole them that night don’t know where they went after that or who wanted them. They were paid cash to do the job and that was that. Later they were moved to New York or Miami, and they are probably still sitting there waiting for the search to die down. I doubt very much if they’ve left the country yet. Nobody in the Boston underworld who might be a tipster has any real good information. After two years somebody would have come forward — at least to test the waters. All we hear, so far, are rumors.”