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The Gardner Heist and Stolen Art

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, ca. 1634, one of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. (Image: www.gardnermuseum.org; click for full size.)

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The biggest museum art theft in history happened twenty years ago next month — half a billion dollars worth of art stolen in the middle of the night from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston by thieves dressed as police officers.

Guards handcuffed and bound with duct tape. Paintings — of Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer — grabbed from frames and whisked into the night.

They’ve never been recovered.

Global art theft is big business. So where are these paintings? The museum is still on the trail. We’ll ask what they know.

This hour, On Point: we’re chasing down the biggest art heist in history.

Guests:

Anne Hawley, director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since 1989.

Anthony Amore, director of security for the Gardner Museum. He joined the Gardner in 2005 and is responsible for recovering the 13 works of art stolen from the museum two decades ago. Before joining the Gardner he worked at the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Security Division.

Robert Wittman, former senior investigator and founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team. He spent 20 years with the FBI, and recovered $225 million worth of stolen art and cultural property. He now runs the art recovery and protection firm, Robert Wittman Inc. His forthcoming book is “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”

See a photo gallery of the artworks stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990.

The Art Loss Register allows you to check a global registry of lost or stolen art.

Host Tom Ashbrook and On Point producers toured the Gardner on Tuesday with security director Anthony Amore.

Anthony Amore, the director of security for the Gardner Museum, gives On Point host Tom Ashbrook a tour of the basement where guards were handcuffed by thieves on March 18, 1990. (Photo: WBUR)

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  • Joe

    For those interested — my art theft reading list:

    Dolnick, Rescue Artist
    Boser, The Gardner Heist
    Scotti, Vanished Smile (Picasso stole Mona Lisa?!?!)
    The Irish Game
    Billionaire’s Vinegar (a scam not a heist)

    There are also a whole host of great art scam books. This is a vibrant literary milieu for those interested in narrative nonfiction to continue today’s show…

  • Jim Thompson

    Here’s your tip: MILES CONNER

  • Tom

    I’m glad the museum doesn’t have the paintings. While it’s terrible that the public no longer has access to these works, they way the museum has ignored Gardner’s will over the last few years they really don’t deserve to have them anymore.

    Tom should ask the director why the museum decided to fight Gardner’s will in court instead of preserving the gift she gave to Boston in the way she wanted it.

  • Ryan Anderson

    The heist is a fascinating story. I haven’t been to the Gardner in a few years. I recall that the empty spaces where the stolen art once hanged are labeled to show that the pieces were purloined. I would love to see the museum embrace the theft and turn it into a detailed exhibit–what happened, when, how, legal and civil actions to identify the thieves and recover the art, etc. It would make a fascinating show!

  • Jersee

    Did a gentleman die shortly after this theft — the museum director — Rollin Hadley?? Did you already mention this? (Sorry — I joined the conversation late.)

  • LinP

    I can’t believe Anne Hawley is still the director. Not only is she front and center ignoring Isabella’s will, but she was never held accountable for the lapses in security in that building that led to the theft being able to be carried out in 3 minutes. She tefloned the whole situation but good. She should be fired now–not to mention long ago.

  • Norman

    Is there a connection between this heist and the attempted theft from the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls New York?

    • Dukeoj

      Absolutly. I have spent a lot of time looking into this. I am a retired detective sergeant, NYPD and have passed a lot of info on to Anthony Amore. Some of the info I have not passed on. I think I know who was involved , but have not received much help from Amore. He is involved with, “Americas most wanted” and I think is more interested in inflating his own ego, and solidifing his position.

  • David Williams

    Hi

    What about Miles Connerr? What’s going on with his offer of a deal to say where they are?

    Thanks

    David

  • becky

    The link to view the 13 stolen works does not work.

  • http://www.thelifeofathief.net David McLain

    I didn’t hear it mentioned, but there’s a blog devoted to the heist. The blogger says he didn’t steal the paintings, but does refer to the thief in the first person once or twice. He seems to know some inside information about the case.

    http://stolenvermeer.blogspot.com

  • Brett

    Thanks, Joe, I am fascinated by crime in the art world. I have a particular interest in “fakes” and the artists who create them. I am just beginning Myles Connor’s book, “Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art thief, Rock-and Roller, and Prodigal Son.”

    This is quite a story! I have a print of Vermeer’s “The Concert” in my music studio.

  • Pauline Casey

    I also tried the link to see the paintings: “not available”. I also thought there had been a connection with someone who had offerred information and/or a deal. Pauline

  • Sue

    The value of a given work of art is often less about the beauty or aesthetic quality of the work itself than about the story associated with the art–some presumed connection with “the hand of the master” or even a connection with an exciting theft. As long as the art world perceives the worth of art in this way, those of us who simply want to enjoy beauty in the company of others (in an art museum), will be handed small reproductions by people like Ms. Hawley who believe we simply don’t understand art, and people like the current possessor of the stolen art will continue to hoard, fondle, and gloat over treasures looted from others.

  • Charlotte

    Has anyone thoroughly checked the actual premises?

  • Monticello

    As a frequent visitor to the Gardner Museum, I very much miss the items that were taken during that heist. (Can it really be twenty years ago already?)

    Though the missing Vermeers are said to command the greatest value of the stolen loot, the one item I miss most is Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” – his only seascape: The brilliant contrasts of light and shadow within in the raging tempest, while paradoxically, serenity appears to be holding the upper hand. And the “pièce de résistance”? – the piece is also a cryptic self-portrait: – Rembrandt includes himself among the storm-tossed crew! (There are fourteen in the boat: 12 disciples, Jesus, and … the artist himself.)

    No matter what one may prize among the booty so ruthlessly taken, the nagging question that remains is: What possible value can these stolen items hold for those who now hide them away from the world?

  • Pat

    As the true owner of the art, the Gardner museum could hang fine reproductions for the public to enjoy, with a “Have you seen this?” plaque. They might be surprised by someone wanting the reward. Art is a treasure, to be enjoyed by all. I visit the Ringling museum here in Sarasota county two or three times a year to enjoy what the Ringling’s bequeathed to Florida.

  • CHRISTINE PALAMIDESSI MOORE

    ANOTHER BOSTON ART HEIST BOOK– SET IN HARVARD’S FOGG. “THE VIRGIN KNOWS” INVOLVES ART STOLEN FROM EUROPE DURING WW2 AND CONNECTION TO VATICAN.

  • Jonathan

    The paintings are, in my opinion, in Japan. The big buyers of expensive art during the 80′s were the Japanese, and a number of collectors of that period were known to be fanatically acquisitive. The person who commissioned this theft knew he would have to store his pieces in private and never display them to friends, i.e. the pure joy of possessing them and being in their presence would be his reward. Therefore the authorities should sift through a list of Japanese multi-millionaires of the 80′s, find out if any visited Boston during the period, and otherwise investigate extremely zealous, reclusive collectors of the period. This may lead to the paintings, which have probably been re-framed by a very discreet framer who was probably paid off, and they are probably stored well in an expensive home.

  • gina

    The value of a given work of art is often less about the beauty or aesthetic quality of the work itself than about the story associated with the art …

    Interesting comment, Sue. I’m reminded of accounts I’ve read about the impostor “Rockefeller”, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Many of his wealthy friends, including art gallery owners and other presumed sophisticates, admired the fake artworks hanging on his walls, certain that they were pricey originals. After all, he was a Rockefeller – what else could they be?

    [BTW, this is a fascinating read about him: http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2009/01/fake_rockefeller200901 ]

  • Jack O.

    How anyone can say that they are glad the Gardner does not have these paintings because of the new building project is beyond me. That’s not only sick, it’s twisted. Further, “Tom” (3rd comment above) clearly never took the time to really study Mrs. Gardner’s will or the Gardner’s actions before insulting Ms. Hawley. The museum didn’t “fight” the will in court, it took the responsible path and sought the blessing of the AG’s office first before proceeding in a way that could be second-guessed by ill-informed malcontents like “Tom.”

  • Margaret L

    I heard snippets of this programme whilst driving & wondered if the thieves of the Gardener art thought they would be insured & when they realized they were not , dumped them in disgust & fear of being found out. I remember seeing both the works in question in the museum & feeling very sad when I went again & saw the blank spaces. It was interesting to hear that it may be 1 or 2 generations before they reappear if they havent been destroyed.hopefully they are returned in my lifetime.

  • Brett

    gina,
    thanks for the link!

  • Curious

    Have the authorities “completely” investigated? I know they said they have, but . . .

    There is a name that I believe came up at least once in the past regarding the Gardner and the theft that seems like a hallmark of the person’s past activities . . . a person I had some contact with in the past.

    Everytime I hear the story, my mind goes back to this person.

    Can you tell me specificaly whom I might contact either at the Gardner or the federal agencies without posting information on a public forum?

  • Kiki

    While the Gardner theft is a horrible loss for the museum, it is certainly not the biggest art heist in history – not even close. Looting by Hitler and the Nazis went on for twelve years, and although many of the most important paintings and other cultural items they stole were rescued from salt mines and caves, many have still not been located over 60 years later. A great website about Hitler’s theft during WWII is http://www.monumentsmen.com.

  • http://WWW.keepeh.com Paul Hegarty

    Great story and well done by Tom.I too can play Sherlock and suggest that the investigation focus on dealers and collectors of the time that were acquiring similar works perhaps through Legitimate channels. I also had an experience similar to the one mentioned in the piece about the gentleman in Japan that had a reproduction. I was hosted at a very exquisite home in Tokyo in the late 80′s. That Japanese Billionare toured us through the house which at the time was worth >30 Million dollars and he had it decorated with extraordinary original art and ancient artifacts from all over the world. As I listened to the program I was brought back to that memory because this self made billionare in a very Japanese way indicated that he cared very little about the price of the things he acquired or the Provenance.
    Great Show

  • Anthony

    Curious, please contact me, Anthony Amore, at the Gardner Museum at theft@gardnermuseum.org or 617-278-5114.

    Hope to hear from you soon,
    Anthony

  • http://gardnergossips.blogspot.com Andrea Sperelli

    Point one I would like to bring up is: At the end of this interview a caller asked Ann Hawley why the museum did not place good reproductions, such as John Myatt’s Original Fakes, within those sad, empty frames. Ann replied that this would not be the right thing to do. My suggestion is to get a few high quality artist projectors and project the images into the frames.

    The empty frames brought home the feeling of victimization to the art loving public. Those frames were not place holders, but were a sign of victimization much like a black eye that was given by a mugger. They have done their job, but now, twenty years later, it is time to remove them from the walls or project the iamges into them until the genuine masterpieces are recovered.

    http://gardnergossips.blogspot.com
    http://www.yourbrushwiththelaw.com

  • Kristen

    The Boston Globe says today (3/4/10) that the FBI is resubmitting evidence from the heist for new & improved DNA analysis. A caller to the show made that suggestion, but the idea was dismissed on the air. Guess they thought about it and decided to look into it. Kudos to that caller!

  • Richard A.

    Anthony, seriously, stop saying I saw the thieves get out of the car, you know it’s BS, the FBI, Boston Police, and the MA office of the DA know that I never made any such statement. Why do you keep lying?

  • Bellegoldendoodle

    Wittman couldn’t find his arse with both hands!

  • Pingback: Reputed Mobster Arrested In Connection With Gardner Museum Theft | Radio Boston

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  • Carlos R Canas

    Some super-rich is now enjoying these pictures.  The paintings are so well recognized that only a secret buyer with enough dole could buy them. I hope he also gets punished and sent to enjoy the view from behind bars if these pictures are ever recovered.  Another “collector” like Goering.

  • Pingback: Gardner Art Heist: The Thieves Who Couldn’t Steal Straight | Cognoscenti

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