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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist

Welcome to the Accessible Art History Blog! In this post, we are going to cover one of the most infamous crimes in American history: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. It occurred on March 18, 1990 and is the largest property theft in history. Thirteen paintings valued at a staggering $500 million were taken in just eighty one minutes! To this day, none of the works have been recovered, and the FBI is still investigating the crime. 


Before we get started with the heist, it's important to understand Isabella Stewart Gardner and her museum. Isabella was born in 1840 to a wealthy, Manhattan family. Her father was a prosperous cloth merchant and this allowed her access to an excellent education. When she was 16, Isabella took a trip to Europe. While there, she visited some of the best art collections in the world. This inspired Isabella and she vowed to one day create a collection to share with the public.

In 1860, at the age of 20, Isabella married John "Jack" Gardner, a wealthy man from Boston. Together, they traveled the world and built an impressive art collection. In order to make her dream of a public museum come true, she had a museum built in the style of a Renaissance Venetian palace. She spent a year curating the displays and the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was open to the public in 1903. 


Today, the museum is one of Boston's most popular attractions. The collection holds about 7500 works, including some by the greatest names in art history, including pieces by Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Singer Sargent.  In 2004, a new wing of the museum was added. This was to allow for more space for exhibitions, art classes, concerts, and a garden. By doing this, modern day directors were ensuring that Isabella's legacy of providing art to the public was carried on. In 2013, the museum was made a Boston Landmark. 


As mentioned above, the heist took place on March 18, 1990. In the middle of the night, two men dressed as police officers rang the bell and told the overnight guard that they had been alerted to a disturbance. Breaking protocol, the guard let the men in. They tied him and another guard up and proceeded to take thirteen pieces of art. The whole event only took a total of 81 minutes. 

The works taken are as follows:

  • The Concert – Vermeer

  • The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt

  • A Lady and Gentleman in Black – Rembrandt

  • Landscape with Obelisk – Flinck

  • Chez Tortoni – Manet

  • Self Portrait – Rembrandt

  • La Sortie de Pesage – Degas

  • Cortege aux Environs de Florence – Degas

  • Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 – Degas

  • Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 – Degas

  • Three Mounted Jockeys – Degas

  • Ancient Chinese Gu

  • French Imperial Eagle Finial


Although the case remains unsolved today, the authorities do have some theories. Art is often used as currency on the black market, so it was most likely stolen for that purpose. Boston also has a history of being a hub for organized crime, so several of the named suspects have connections in that world. There are a lot of theories, but no one has come forward to claim credit, even after thirty years. 


In 2013, the FBI held a press conference to let the public know that they considered the case open due to some promising leads. Although they did not specify what the leads were, it did give hope that the works were still out there somewhere. They also reminded the public that there is a $5 million reward for information leading to the art's discovery and that the statute of limitations was up. However, those things weren't juicy enough and every piece is still missing. 



Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent. 1888. Via Public Domain

Exterior of the Museum.Via Public Domain

Sketch of the Suspects. via the FBI

Empty Frames via Public Domain

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