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The Isabella Gardner Museum Theft

The Storm on Galilee, by Rembrandt

Built in Boston at the turn of the century by the late Mrs. Jack Gardner, the Italianate mansion was used to house her private collection of art and share it with the public. Unfortunately, as the festivities of St. Patrick’s Day came to an end on March 18, 1990, two unknown thieves rob the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and walked away with a dazzling collection of art masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer valued to be as high as at $500 million today, making it the largest art theft in history!

After 20 years and $20 million spent investigating the Isabella Gardner Museum theft, there’s never been a single arrest and “The Gardner Heist” remains one of the nation’s most extraordinary unsolved mysteries.

Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, two men, dressed as Boston police officers buzz the museum’s service entrance and tells the desk guard that they were responding to a report of a disturbance and needed to investigate. The young, inexperienced guard, going against company protocol buzzed them in at 1:24 a.m.

At that moment, the “perfect crime” began to take place.

Upon gaining access to the museum, the two security guards on duty were quickly overpowered, bound with duct tape and handcuffed in separate remote areas in the basement. Other than the security guards, the only other security system the museum had in place was an internal one. A “panic” button was located behind the security desk and since it had not been activated, the police had no knowledge that a robbery was in progress.

For the next 81 minutes, the thieves basically had the “run of the house.”

Records show that their steps were traced by the museum’s motion detector system which showed that the thieves went immediately to the second floor, and then split up. One headed into the Dutch Room at the south end of the building and the other to the Short Gallery, a room located above the museum’s main entrance. The thieves showed little regard to care for the valuable items they were stealing. They smashed frames, ripped out the artwork and left broken glass and remnants of canvas behind.

Taken in the Isabella Gardner Museum theft were 13 valuable masterworks, including two principal works –the only seascape that Rembrandt is known to have painted, ’The Sea of Galilee,” and “The Concert,” by Vermeer, one of only about 35 known paintings by the Dutch artist, would command at least $50 million dollars each on the open market today.

According to the FBI Art Theft Program website, the following works of art were taken:

VERMEER, THE CONCERT; Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm.
REMBRANDT, A LADY AND GENTLEMAN IN BLACK; Oil on canvas, 131.6 x 109 cm. Inscribed at the foot, REMBRANDT. FT: 1633.
REMBRANDT, THE STORM ON THE SEA OF GALILEE, Oil on canvas, 161.7 x 129.8. cm. Inscribed on the rudder, REMBRANDT. FT: 1633
REMBRANDT, SELF PORTRAIT, Etching, 1 3/4″ x 2″, (Postage Stamp size)
GOVAERT FLINCK, LANDSCAPE WITH AN OBELISK , Oil on an oak panel, 54.5 x 71 cm. Inscribed faintly at the foot on the right; R. 16.8 (until recently this was attributed to Rembrandt).
CHINESE BRONZE BEAKER OR “KU”, Chinese, SHANG DYNASTY, 1200-1100 BC; height of 10 “, diameter of 6 1/8″, with a weight of 2 pounds, 7 ounces.

DEGAS, LA SORTIE DU PELAGE, pencil and water color on paper, 10 x 16 cm.
DEGAS, CORTEGE AUX ENVIRONS DE FLORENCE, pencil and wash on paper, 16 x 21 cm. (This and the above were originally in a single frame.)
DEGAS, THREE MOUNTED JOCKEYS; Black ink, white, flesh and rose washes, probably oil pigments, applied with a brush on medium brown paper, 30.5 x 24 cm.
DEGAS, PROGRAM FOR AN ARTISTIC SOIREE; Charcoal on white paper, 24.1 x 30.9 cm.
DEGAS, PROGRAM FOR AN ARTISTIC SOIREE; a less finished version of the above, charcoal on buff paper, 23.4 x 30 cm. (This and the above were originally in a single frame.)

About Madeleine Noa

Madeleine Noa is a freelance writer from Honolulu, Hawaii who has published articles on a wide range of topics including spas, real estate development in Hawaii, entertainment, luxury yachts, and history. She is also a copywriter and creates sales collateral for small businesses and corporations. She has been an associate writer for "IN" Magazine and "Second City" Magazine, having been published 13 times between the two publications. She currently is involved in the alternative energy industry and in helping to sustain a symphonic orchestra in Hawaii.
  • aviatorhawaii

    How interesting! The largest art heist in history!?! I think the security guards on duty that night was also “in” on it. I really enjoy the articles written by this author.