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Empty picture frames tossed on the floor during the Gardner Museum heist.

The most infamous unsolved art heist

13 pieces of stolen art. A $5 million dollar reward. No sign of the masterpieces for 25 years. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft.

Gardner Museum

Empty frame at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo via FBI.gov.

At 1:24 am on Sunday the 18th of March, 1990, the doorbell rang at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Back Bay neighbourhood. When one of the museum’s two guards went to the door, he saw what appeared to be two police officers waving at him through the glass. “Police! Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard,” said one. The security guard let them in. Minutes later, both security guards were handcuffed to pipes in the museum basement with duct tape around their heads and the “police officers”, who were actually art thieves, were robbing the place.

Tied up museum guard

The REAL police found the museum security guards handcuffed and duct taped in the basement

Even after all these years, the Gardner Museum heist makes the news just about every week. New leads, false trails, aging gangsters, and missing art: the story is irresistible. In this exercise we will explore the Gardner Museum heist through the multimedia resources provided by the FBI and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Whodunit? There is $5 million for whoever can answer that question.

Collect clues and discuss crime scenarios in the comments.

Missing Artworks

The 13 pieces stolen by the Gardner thieves include some of the most valuable paintings in the world…and what seem to be curious and random low-value knick-knacks. Some people think that the low value pieces are clues: do they reveal the thieves’ true tastes? Were they robbery souvenirs? What do you think?

You can also view the artworks and the FBI wanted posters on the FBI website.

The Masterpieces

1. The Concert by Vermeer

Vermeer's The Concert

One of only a handful of known paintings by Vermeer, the painting is valued at over $200 million.

2. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Rembrandt’s only seascape, the painting is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

3. A Lady and a Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt

Rembrandt A Lady and a Gentleman in Black

4. Chez Tortoni by Manet

Manet Chez Tortoni

The Lower-value Pieces

5. Landscape with an Obelisk by Flinck

Flinck Landscape with an Obelisk

6. Self-Portrait by Rembrandt

Rembrandt Self portrait

7. La Sortie de Pesage by Degas

Degas La Sortie de Pesage

8. Cortege aux Environs de Florence by Degas

Degas Cortege aux Environs de Florence

9. Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 by Degas

Degas Program for an Artistic Soirée 1

10. Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 by Degas

Degas Program for an Artistic Soirée 2

11. Three Mounted Jockeys by Degas

Degas Three Mounted Jockeys

The Bric-a-brac?

12. Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessel

Chinese Ku

13. Bronze Finial of an Eagle

Bronze Eagle

Empty Frames

Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose art collection makes up the Gardner Museum, was clear in her will that she wanted her art to be arranged exactly in a certain way. In honour of this request, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has decided to leave the frames from the stolen paintings on the walls but empty.

The Gardner Museum has teamed up with the Google Art Project to create a virtual tour of the empty frames. Take a look around:

Gardner Museum Tour

Click here to take the Gardner Museum Stolen Art Tour

The Investigators

In these videos produced by the FBI, key investigators discuss their efforts to solve this crime and to recover the missing Gardner Museum masterpieces.

Kelly

Click here to watch Geoff Kelly, a Special Agent with FBI, discuss the case

Amore

Click here to watch Anthony Amore, Security Chief at the Gardner Museum, discuss the case

DesLauriers

Click here to watch Richard DesLauriers, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, discuss the case

Ortiz

Click here to watch Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney, Massachusetts, discuss the case

Recent Revelations

Lately the world has been a-buzz with Gardner Heist news! Although 25 years have passed since the robbery took place, new revelations come every week.

Have a look for yourself: click here and type “Gardner Heist” or a related search term into Google News. You won’t come back empty handed.

One of the most surprising recent revelations about the Gardner Heist is that the thieves may have done a ‘trial run’ of the theft the night before. On 6 August 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced that they had security camera footage from the night before the heist that shows an unidentified and unauthorized individual entering the museum in the middle of the night. The very same security guard who let the robbers in let this man in as well.

Gardner Footage

Click here to watch the recently released security footage

Who is this man? Why did the security guard let him in? Why did the authorities wait over 25 years to release this information to the public? We just don’t know.

Your Thoughts

We may never know the fate of the Gardner Museum’s masterpieces, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to investigate this crime. Until we know for sure that the Vermeer, the Rembrandts, and the other artworks have been destroyed, there is always hope that they will be recovered.

Discuss in the comments section: Based on your research into this case, what do you think happened to the Gardner artworks? What might the authorities have overlooked? How can museums improve their security?

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This article is from the free online course:

Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

University of Glasgow