[Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

March 18, 1990: The Largest Art Heist In History

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At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers walked into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and said four words that rocked the art world: “Gentlemen, this is a robbery.” 

The Smithsonian Magazine writes, “The pair proceeded to remove 13 treasured artworks on display in the lavishly decorated gallery, smashing the protective glass of two Rembrandt paintings and cutting the canvases from their gilded frames. Just over an hour later, the thieves made off with a staggering collection of art that’s valued today at $500 million.

The two thieves tricked the young guards on duty, 23-year-old Rick Abath and 25-year-old Randy Hestand, into buzzing them inside. Dressed in stolen police uniforms, the burglars pretended to be cops responding to a disturbance call linked to the rowdy Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations taking place outside.

Once inside, the criminals overpowered the hapless guards, disabled the security cameras and got to work removing precious works of art from their frames. The thieves departed at 2:45 a.m. after making two separate trips to their car with the artwork in tow; the night guards, their mouths duct-taped shut, remained trapped in the museum basement until the police, called in by the next set of guards to arrive at the museum, found them around 8:15 a.m.

The thieves made a beeline for some of the museum’s greatest treasures, including Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only known seascape painted by Rembrandt; A Lady and Gentleman in Black, also by Rembrandt; and Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert, one of just dozens of the Dutch Old Master’s paintings to survive today. They also picked up a self-portrait sketch by Rembrandt, five sketches by French Impressionist Edgar Degas, a small portrait of a man by Édouard Manet and an ancient Chinese bronze vessel.”

Investigators have been perplexed ever since. 

“The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has extended a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of 13 works valued at half a billion dollars that were pilfered in 1990.

The board of directors voted to extend the reward, which was to have reverted to $5 million at the end of 2017, in the hope of enticing tips that would help recover works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Manet and others that were stolen in the world’s largest unsolved art heist.

That theft took place just after midnight on March 18, 1990, when a pair of thieves dressed as Boston police officers bamboozled museum guards to gain access to the building, then restrained them and left 81 minutes later with the artworks.

There have been multiple suspects over the years including members of the mafia and the Irish Republican Army. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said in 2013 that agents had figured out who the thieves were but did not give their names, adding that the two were no longer alive. The statute of limitations on the theft ran out in 1995 but the investigation remains active,” according to The New York Times.

The question still remains: where are the paintings?

Today the empty frames continue hanging in the Gardner Museum as a placeholder for the missing works and as symbols of hope awaiting their return. 

For now, patrons will have to settle for an augmented reality tour called Hacking The Heist. 

You can learn more about the largest property theft in history by visiting www.gardnermuseum.org


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