The Gardner Heist: The World’s Greatest Art Heist

The Gardner Heist

The Gardner Museum, founded by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1903, is an establishment where admission is free to anyone named Isabella and where the infamous Gardner Heist took place. The museum plays host to over 2,500 stunning artworks counting some from the greats including, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Manet, but to this day is still missing some of its most valuable pieces.

These artworks that were stolen in the Gardner heist currently hold the value of nearly $300 million and have yet to be seen or even hold a trace in the art underworld. Managing the security of the museum was a simple job to handle for two people. One would patrol the building, which also had motion detectors installed, while the other would operate the main security desk surveying the museum through its video monitors.

On March 18th, 1990, three days before Boston was to see the end of winter for another year, two inexperienced security guards stood on night watch duty in the Gardner museum. One, a 23-year-old music student (who admitted to sometimes being stoned while on guard duty and had previously invited friends there to get drunk and admire the artwork), the other a 25-year-old horn player who had only worked at the museum for a few months as a daytime guard. It was on this night that the two men, dressed as Boston police officers, approached the museum doors and informed one of the security guards through the intercom that they had come to investigate a disturbance on the premises.

It was 1:24am when the guard on the desk decided to open the way, through two sets of security doors, for the two men dressed as police officers. Now, in the museum’s security manual, kept at the guard desk that said guard was sitting at, it is written that all guards on the night shift were not to admit police officers into the museum, unless they had been called upon by someone from the museum itself. Who reads manuals anyway?
Both guards claim they had never been advised what precautions to take when police appeared unexpectedly at the museum.

As the two masterminds of the Gardner heist, still dressed as police officers, walked into the museum they questioned the guard that unlocked the electric security doors who allowed them inside. They asked him how many other guards were on duty, to which he replied willingly that only one other guard was present and currently patrolling the upper floors.

“Get him down here.” The security guard recounted one of the men dressed as police officers ordering. As the other guard made his way down to the security desk, the same man claimed that the security guard looked familiar and that he believed there was a default warrant out on him. The man posing as a police officer asked to see the security guard’s identification. He obliged, confused as he knew there was no warrant placed on him. After the man had inspected his identification he ordered the security guard to stand facing the wall. He obliged once more and without resisting, was handcuffed by the imposters.

As the other guard entered the scene he found the men interrogating his nightshift partner and soon found himself in handcuffs too. He inquired why he was being arrested and remembered the art thief’s reply:
“You’re not being arrested. This is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems, and you won’t get hurt.”

The Gardner heist had now begun. The two thieves quickly bound the security guards with duct tape and secured them in the museum’s basement. Within 25 minutes the thieves had turned the museum into their own artistic treasure trove. With little care for the paintings welfare, they took what they wanted; cutting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee from its frame, robbing the Napoleonic banner of its gilded eagle finial and knocking The Concert and Chez Tortoni from their frames. Curiously, the thieves of the Gardner heist left some of the museums most valuable artworks such as Titian’s The Rape of Europa (1562) intact, making no attempt to steal them.

It took two trips to their car to load up the loot and when they had finished looting the Garner of some of its most priceless artworks, they disappeared into the night having performed the most successful art heist in history. The guards, still bound in the basement, never heard the thieves’ departure. One of the two had begun singing I Shall be Released by Bob Dylan while he sat taped to a pole. This self-fulfilling prophecy eventually came to fruition, when the real police arrived at 8:15am.

The Gardner Heist Remains Unsolved

To this day the artwork that was stolen in the Gardner heist has never been retrieved. Investigations by the FBI and private detectives all failed to find any solid leads on the arts whereabouts. Four years later in April 1994, the museum received a message from an anonymous contact, claiming that the paintings would be available for the exchange of $2.4 million and immunity from prosecution for both the art thieves who had committed the Gardner heist and those who had safeguarded the paintings. This was opposed by the FBI, who were against handing out immunity for the exchange of art, but 10 years since then they have offered immunity to the person that returns the artwork.

The Gardner museum has also offered a $5 million reward for the return of the paintings, but has yet to receive any information regarding them. Sadly, it looks as if the stolen artwork has little chance of ever finding its way back to its rightful owner.

About the Author:

Adam is a freelance writer that focuses on luxury asset trends for Borro Private Finance.