Photo by David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The heist quickly became one of the most infamous in history.

June 08, 2017

Early in the morning of March 18, 1990, as Boston revelers still roamed the streets following St. Patrick's Day celebrations, two criminals disguised as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and pulled off the art heist of the century.

After tying up the security guard, they moved through the museum for 81 minutes, taking 13 works of art — Rembrandts, a Manet, and a Vermeer, to name a few — stealing $300 million worth of art and disappearing without a trace.

The paintings are still missing 27 years later. The museum just doubled the bounty for information on the whereabouts of the paintings — now worth $500 million — offering $10 million instead of $5 million in reward.

“We want to make the public know how serious we are about getting our paintings back,” the Gardner’s head of security, Anthony Amore, told Travel + Leisure.

The museum has long been a major attraction both for residents and visitors to Boston. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a 19th-century resident of the city and a collector of all things she found beautiful, from ostrich eggs to rare books to paintings from the old masters.

The collection is a veritable who’s who of art history, containing works such as Titian’s “Europa” and “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” by Raphael, as well as the enormous canvas by John Singer Sargent called “El Jaleo.”

Gardner helped turn the building that housed her apartment, a Venetian villa complete with a seasonal courtyard and chapel, into a public museum in 1903. 

To visit the museum is to step back through time: the patron of the arts made specifications in her will concerning how the objects were to be organized and displayed, and her vision still guides any visit. A museum-goer might feel more like they are being welcomed into someone's lavish home than visiting a museum.

Given the specific intent with which each object was curated, stealing 13 works of art does not go unnoticed. The museum made the decision to leave the empty frames of the paintings on the walls where they once hung.

“These pieces are fully irreplaceable,” Amore said. “It’s like her collective work of art has been lessened. There’s only one place for these paintings to hang and that’s here.”

Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images

The FBI was able to track the art to Connecticut and then Pennsylvania in 2003, but law enforcement has been unable to recover the paintings. While many art historians had been expecting the works to appear at a black market auction or be held for ransom, there was little sign of them.

Following the heist, the thieves likely found themselves in the situation of owning a valuable object that was impossible to resell, one expert told T+L.

“The true art in art crime isn’t the stealing, it’s the selling,” said Robert Wittman, a former special agent with the FBI who spent 20 years (much of it undercover), recovering stolen art. “They’re better thieves than they are businessmen.” 

The stolen paintings, including Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” number among some of the most recognizable in the world, meaning they could never show up at auction without members of the art community knowing immediately from where they originated.

Theories have swirled concerning the fate of the paintings, and Wittman noted that given the date of the crime, the thieves are likely dead or geriatric. The thieves' next of kin, or anyone who possesses one of the paintings, would therefore find themselves in the predicament of meticulously preserving a work of art to protect its value while fully knowing it will be near impossible to sell.

The reward, which was initially set at $1 million and then later bumped to $5 million and now up to $10 million, can be a powerful tool in bringing the paintings back to the Gardner, according to Wittman.

Not all rewards have worked in the past, however. The thieves can essentially attempt to hold the museum for ransom, as art historian Noah Charney wrote for CNN. If the Gardner thieves had wanted to ransom the objects, however, it stands to reason that they would have done it more immediately following the heist.

Even if the change in reward might not be a significant one ($5 million is already enough to motivate many people), the announcement of the higher reward could help put the lost paintings back on the radar of the public at large.

Anyone who is under 30 is unlikely to have ever had the chance to see these paintings firsthand, and while the museum’s collection remains impressive, the loss of the 13 works of art is still felt.

“We’re talking about pieces of art by the world’s greatest artists. You cannot put a price tag on the experience of seeing these things,” Amore said. “This is a peek into our past. It’s also an example of the best that human beings can accomplish in an important art form.”

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