Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery
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.
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.