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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, April 23, 2024

What the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist means for museums around the world today


Eighty-one minutes. On the night of March 18, 1990, 81 minutes was how long it took two thieves dressed as police officers to steal 13 of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s most prized artworks. The thieves ran away with up to $500 million worth of art, including multiple works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Degas, as well as a painting by the renowned Johannes Vermeer. Above all else, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft is, to this day, the single largest property theft in the world, with repercussions that have reverberated for decades.

Thirty-three years later, the whereabouts of the artworks remains a mystery. Will they ever be found? Who took them in the first place? How have the thieves gotten away with it for this long? For most of these questions, we may never know the answer. What we do know, however, is that the Gardner heist’s legacy lives on and continues to impact museums around the world.

Andrew McClellan, a professor of history of art and architecture who studies the Gardner Museum, vividly remembers the day of the heist.

“It was a dreadful day. It was actually my birthday. … The scale of it and the audacity of the theft were shocking, but the losses were extraordinary in the sense that the thieves stole some of the most prized objects in the collection,” McClellan said.

McClellan alluded to the fact that this heist remains puzzling due to the seemingly random nature of items stolen.

“They left even more valuable things there too. … It’s strange. It remains a peculiar theft in the sense that it seems almost random in some ways, and yet, so random that it seems targeted,” McClellan said.

Kelly Horan, deputy editor of the Ideas section of The Boston Globe, worked as senior producer and senior reporter for “Last Seen,” a WBUR podcast on the Gardner heist. Horan attempted to explain the “randomness” of the heist through her research on past art heists in the Boston area. Based on multiple heists in the 1970s of other paintings by the Dutch artist Rembrandt in the Boston area, she asserted that the Gardner thieves were likely commissioned to primarily steal Rembrandt paintings.

“In the case particularly of the [Museum of Fine Arts’] Rembrandt, that was used successfully as a bargaining chip for an art thief who faced doing a lot of [prison] time for another art theft that he’d committed,” Horan said. “I could see how that would activate the ‘spidey sense’ of criminals, who’d be like, ‘Oh, so Rembrandt is good to steal.’ And it's always been my theory that the thieves were commissioned by someone else to steal the Rembrandts and that they went in there for the Rembrandts.”

As for the rest of the stolen art, Horan believes the thieves took as they pleased. Items that were randomly stolen include sketches by French impressionist Edgar Degas and an eagle finial from a Napoleonic flag display.

“The other things that they stole, to me, suggests that they weren’t so much being selective as freelancing and grabbing stuff that they just liked. … I really believe that one of the thieves liked the Degas sketches because he spent a lot of time at the racetracks and liked horses,” Horan said.

While Horan believes the thieves stole items that drew personal intrigue, she said the nature of art theft rarely attracts thieves that steal art for pleasure. Instead, the art is “fenced,” or sold to buyers around the globe.

“What we now know is that people steal art often as a bargaining chip. It can be used as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” Horan said. “It can be used to barter. ‘I have something you want, give me something I want.’ Very rarely, the research suggests people steal because they just love art.”

According to Horan, multiple theories suggest criminal Bobby Donati, or other members of the TRC Auto Electric gang, such as George Reissfelder, could have been linked to the heist. Other theories suggest that the heist was an inside job, with security guard Rick Abath singled out as the primary suspect. Horan explained that during the heist, no alarm went off in the museum’s Blue Room. Investigators realized that Abath had been the only security guard in that room earlier that night, which led him to be labeled as a suspect.

“It looked super fishy that there was no alarm. … There has long been speculation that there might have been a heist within a heist … the only person that we know for sure who was in that room that night was Rick Abath,” Horan said.

Even three decades later, the Gardner heist continues to raise questions about art safety and museum security. Jennifer Gee, a second year master’s student in Tufts’ Art History and Museum Studies program, commented on the importance of museums like the Gardner keeping their artworks safe while also maintaining an intimate and approachable atmosphere for visitors.

“Of course, you have to strike a balance between safety and accessibility in that it’s important to keep our works of art safe … but then on the other hand, you can’t keep entire museums held up like they have the Mona Lisa,” Gee said. “I think that the Gardner Museum’s approachability, the fact that you can still just walk through the museum … and you can get up close [and] see things … I think that’s very valuable to a museum experience.”

McClellan commented on the affordability of museum security and that many museums around the world continue to suffer from theft. However, he asserted that museums like the Gardner are unlikely to be robbed anytime soon.

“There are thefts every week from museums across the world, and it’s on a sliding scale in terms of what kind of security museums can afford. … I think the Gardner Museum now will be very well protected, for sure…” McClellan said. “So, poorer museums, smaller museums, yes, they’re vulnerable and things will get stolen.”

Today, the Gardner’s security is more extensive than it was in 1990, as seen in the expansion of a new modernized wing. Despite these expansions, the core of the museum quite literally remains intact. As part of her will, Isabella Stewart Gardner commanded that no artwork ever be removed from exhibition, let alone moved out of place. As a result, the empty frames from the stolen paintings remain exactly where they were, making for an eerie and dramatic reminder of the event that took place now 33 years prior.

“Any other museum in this country that wasn’t protected by a will of that sort would have covered over the loss. They would have taken down the empty frames. They would have filled the gaps on the wall with things from storage, or they would have bought new things, perhaps,” McClellan said. “One way or the other, they would never have left that physical trace of theft. The Gardner had no choice.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s commitment to preserving the integrity of her museum has reigned triumphant over any challenges. Almost 100 years after her death in 1924, many continue to wonder how she would have reacted to the heist that upended her life’s work.

“I mean it would have just been calamitous for her. If she’s somewhere out there in the great beyond, I think that she’s probably still weeping from this loss,” Horan said.

McClellan also shared his opinions on how Gardner may have reacted if she were alive.

“I think that she put so much effort into every detail of that museum. Everything was so thought through by her that she would be just immensely saddened by the loss of integrity that the theft represents,” McClellan said. “After she got over the loss, one could almost imagine her leading tours of the collection and drawing people’s attention to it and telling stories about where she got all the art and all the memories that she had attached to those works.”

Although it’s apparent Gardner would have mourned the loss of her works, experts on the matter agree that she would have done something about it. As McClellan alluded to, the museum carried on Gardner’s legacy by turning the theft into an opportunity — an opportunity for more engagement within the museum.

“However, I think the museum and the world has managed to sort of turn that catastrophe into something of an interesting gain,” McClellan said. “I’ve asked guards, and the guards will say that more people ask about the theft than they ask about anything else, so in a funny kind of twist of irony, the theft has breathed a new kind of life into the place.”

Although the Gardner Museum has experienced a sort of revival based on allure from the heist, the inability to move items on display draws greater questions surrounding the museum's ability to adapt and keep up with the digital age. McClellan offered a perspective that contrasts this assertion.

“I think one could counter argue that the more saturated our world becomes with reproduced images, the more value singular iconic works have,” McClellan said. “People are drawn to museums; they are drawn to the singular experience of removing themselves from the flow of life and … immersing themselves, in the calm and the sort of ethereal aura of museums and original works of art.”

However, McClellan also equally acknowledged the importance of museums incorporating digital technology and creating more interactive exhibits.

“Museums are taking much better use of computerized access to information, QR codes and so forth, to make sure that they can find some level of compromise between the sort of image world outside the museum and the images inside the museum,” McClellan said.

Perhaps most importantly, McClellan expressed the importance of museums not only adapting digitally and physically, but also conveying interesting and important untold stories.

“The other thing that museums have to do is to move with the times in terms of what people are interested in,” McClellan said. “Right now, you see a huge emphasis on making museums into vehicles for social justice stories in particular. … So that emphasis on storytelling and using objects … as windows into a revised view of the past, is another crucial element that museums are taking advantage of to stay relevant.”

As for the Gardner Museum, the legacy of the heist and the museum’s ability to adapt to impending innovations, there is a continued sense of optimism and hope and a belief that the museum can outlast any future challenges.

“The Gardner is a very good example of how … people have an idea of [museums] as being musty, forgotten, frozen places that don’t speak to the present, but not so!” McClellan said. “The Gardner is alive and well in its frozen form, in its garden, and in the ways in which it reaches out and meets us in the 21st century.”