Gone, baby, gone
March 17, 2010 7:28 PM   Subscribe

Twenty years ago tonight, thieves posing as Boston police talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and left with thirteen works of art now valued at half a billion dollars, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts. Neither those responsible for history's greatest art theft, nor the missing works of art, have ever been located. (Previously, including a comment from a MeFite who had been working security at the musuem, but not that night.)
posted by Horace Rumpole (73 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember it very well. It was two months before my wedding, and I and my then-fiancee had been to the Gardner many times. We were both sure that the art would all turn up soon, because what could they do with it? It couldn't be sold or displayed anywhere. Twenty years later, we're still sure it will turn up soon. After all, what could they do with it?
posted by yhbc at 7:43 PM on March 17, 2010


It's pretty interesting if you visit the museum. Mrs. Gardner apparently left a note in her endowment that the whole museum had to be left as it was when she died. So now empty frames hang where the paintings once were. It's kinda spooky.
posted by cheap paper at 7:45 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Twenty years later, we're still sure it will turn up soon.

I'd replace that "soon" with "eventually".
posted by orange swan at 7:51 PM on March 17, 2010


I have a suspect.

You know, it wasn't just about Pablo Picasso.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:53 PM on March 17, 2010


As I (admittedly poorly) understand it, high profile art thefts usually fall into 2 categories. Those that have a private buyer somewhere and those that plan on ransoming it back to the place of theft. After 20 years I suspect it was the former, and are now hanging some place in Dubai, or in Bill Gates' secret underground volcanic lair. (or Ken Lay used them as toilet paper)
posted by edgeways at 7:55 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this--one of my favorite mysteries!!!

Sometimes I imagine some dude (or lady) chilling in his (her) log cabin, surrounded by priceless works of art, having planned the whole thing for the sheer beauty of the paintings. (Please, please don't let them have destroyed the booty out of fear of being caught or pique at being unable to sell.)
posted by sallybrown at 7:56 PM on March 17, 2010


After all, what could they do with it?

That is a very good question. I noted in the thieves posing as Boston police link, the FBI states,

While in the museum from the hours of 1:24 a.m. to 2:45 a.m., the unknown subjects seized the following works of art, the values of which have been estimated as high as 300 million dollars.

What is the dollar value of something other than the number of dollars someone will pay for it? Imagine we are stranded on a desert island with no food and no hope of rescue for a month and we have a crate of canned tuna. (An unlikely scenario, I know, but it gets better.) I have a fist-sized diamond and you have two can openers you paid a buck twenty-nine each for. How much is my diamond worth?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:57 PM on March 17, 2010


Also, I think we should have a "robertstack" tag.
posted by sallybrown at 8:02 PM on March 17, 2010


I have a fist-sized diamond and you have two can openers you paid a buck twenty-nine each for. How much is my diamond worth?

I reckon I can open a can of tuna with a diamond the size of my fist.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:02 PM on March 17, 2010 [21 favorites]


Off and on the Boston Globe has published articles theorizing that Whitey Bulger and his gang may have been behind the theft. Including some very tantalizing leads from unreliable stool pigeons in jail. 10 seconds lazy research turns up this discouraging squib suggesting Bulger's no longer considered a likely suspect. Or not? Who knows?
posted by Nelson at 8:04 PM on March 17, 2010


Also, I think we should have a "robertstack" tag.

I don't know if Unsolved Mysteries ever did the Gardner Heist, but it was on America's Most Wanted.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:07 PM on March 17, 2010


As I (admittedly poorly) understand it, high profile art thefts usually fall into 2 categories. Those that have a private buyer somewhere and those that plan on ransoming it back to the place of theft. After 20 years I suspect it was the former, and are now hanging some place in Dubai, or in Bill Gates' secret underground volcanic lair.

There is a much more elegant of the former scenario, which is where you (the thief) negotiate with a half-dozen or more buyers and contact a skilled art forger. You line up ten people who are each prepared to shell out let us say ten million for Vermeer's The Concert. You have your forger make ten copies (either before or after you have stolen the original) and cut the forger in for ten percent of the haul. You then ship off the copies to the buyers. The forger has earned ten million for a few weeks' work, you have ninety million in your pocket, the dupes, even if they somehow learn of the forgeries, have no legal recourse unless they want to be jailed for conspiracy -- of course, neither does the forger if conscience should strike later -- and you have a Vermeer to hang on the wall of your hidden lair. And it better be a well-hidden lair, because now there are ten pissed-off multi-millionaires who clearly have no qualms about paying people well to perform illegal acts.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:08 PM on March 17, 2010 [30 favorites]


I reckon I can open a can of tuna with a diamond the size of my fist.

If you believe this to be true, I urge you to take a rock of the right size and a half-dozen tins and give it a shot. Bonus points if you record the attempt and post it to Youtube.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:10 PM on March 17, 2010


i remember this from when i was a kid. it was such a huge case. thanks for the memory.
posted by anya32 at 8:12 PM on March 17, 2010


There is a much more elegant of the former scenario

That works great unless the Doctor writes "This is a fake" in magic marker on all your canvasses.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:13 PM on March 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Re: can of tuna and fist-size diamond: weirdest derail ever.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:15 PM on March 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


I urge you to take a rock of the right size and a half-dozen tins and give it a shot

Only if the rock is cut into the classic drawn diamond shape with a broad top that's easy to grip and comes to an incredibly hard, sharp point at the bottom.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:15 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I reckon I can open a can of tuna with a diamond the size of my fist.
Damn you, fracture toughness!
posted by Paragon at 8:18 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


weirdest best derail ever.
posted by axiom at 8:20 PM on March 17, 2010


Re: can of tuna and fist-size diamond: weirdest derail ever.

Have you not heard of Vermeer's classic Two Mefites on an Island with a Crate of Canned Tuna, Two $1.29 Can Openers, and a Large Diamond? Prole.
posted by sallybrown at 8:20 PM on March 17, 2010 [22 favorites]


On another note, there is a large textile hanging in the Gardner (still) which has a pair of copulating rabbits on it, if you know where to look. And show your mother, when she comes to visit.
posted by yhbc at 8:20 PM on March 17, 2010


After all, what could they do with it?
Stolen art can be used as collateral in illicit transactions.
posted by tellurian at 8:21 PM on March 17, 2010


That works great unless the Doctor writes "This is a fake" in magic marker on all your canvasses.

I don't think I have ever seen an episode of the show pre-Eccleston, but the summary reminds me of why. sorry for the derail, but if you have a show about a time traveller and you want to write a story about the Mona Lisa being stolen from the Louvre, I wonder why you would not build it around the occasion when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:23 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Damn you Paragon!
posted by nathancaswell at 8:23 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Stolen art can be used as collateral in illicit transactions.

I figured as much, but that seems to be a bootstraps problem. If the nominal value of a painting is ten million but I can sell it for only a fraction of that, how is it worth its putative value in an illicit transaction? It's not like the next guy who has traded me some contraband for it can now sell it for ten million, so I don't see why he would give me ten million worth of contraband for the painting.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:30 PM on March 17, 2010


These may never be found - the stolen art market is huge. In fact, people say that - after guns and drugs - art is the biggest black market in the world, though interpol are a little more equivocal on it. Regardless, it's an absolutely gigantic market, and as Tellurian points out, stolen art can become a kind of common currency in the underworld.
posted by smoke at 8:33 PM on March 17, 2010


*wearing silk smoking jacket and sipping rare cognac, contemplates lovely framed objects in secret island headquarters hidden by invisibility field*
posted by longsleeves at 8:52 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the way, when the report came out, it was often mentioned that author Jane Langton (a family friend, a lovely lady and a very good mystery writer) wrote a book about a theft at the Gardner just a year or two prior to the theft. A good book.
posted by kozad at 8:56 PM on March 17, 2010


longsleeves: "*wearing silk smoking jacket and sipping rare cognac, contemplates lovely framed objects in secret island headquarters hidden by invisibility field*"

... while plotting to become overlord of the world.
posted by bwg at 8:57 PM on March 17, 2010


... while plotting to become overlord of the world.

*while talking albino chimp juggles four fist-sized diamonds*
posted by longsleeves at 8:59 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


From the March 30, 2009 Publisher's Weekly, Steal This Painting: A Conversation with Myles J. Connor:
When you look at the big, successful heists of the last 20 years, like the Scottish Madonna or the theft of The Scream from the [Munch Museum and another version from the] Norwegian National Gallery, you realize that very little has changed. The stuff you see in the movies—some computer geek hacking into the museum's mainframe and disabling the alarms so his buddies can rappel in from the air ducts—just isn't realistic. I don't care how good you are; a top-notch security system is impossible to outsmart, and it's certainly not worth the effort. The best way to successfully execute a big score is still the way we did it when we took the Rembrandt: go in while the museum's open, grab the painting off the wall and muscle your way out.
Art thief Connor — aka the self-described "President of Rock and Roll" before he turned from music to art appreciation — was a suspect in the Gardner Museum theft. From the the May 11, 2008 Boston Herald article*, Meet the suspects: Myles J. Connor Jr.:
Connor, 65, has told the Herald that he cased the Hub museum and believes some of his associates are behind the March 18, 1990, theft.

Connor, the son of a Milton cop, was first linked with efforts to recover the stolen masterpieces in 1997. At the time, Connor was serving a 15-year sentence in a Pennsylvania federal prison for interstate trafficking in stolen antiques and drug charges.

“I know emphatically and beyond any doubt who stole the art,” Connor once told Time magazine, ABC News and other media outlets. It was a repeat of a tale Connor had told the Herald many times as well.
His autobiography The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller, and Prodigal Son was published in April 2009, and its rights were purchased for a possible film.

*More Boston Herald links about the Gardner heist here.
posted by cenoxo at 9:13 PM on March 17, 2010


Re: can of tuna and fist-size diamond: weirdest derail ever.

Haven't you ever heard of Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome?
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:16 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wait, why can't I just bludgeon you to death with my fist-sized diamond and take the can opener? Did this really not occur to anyone else?
posted by Rangeboy at 9:21 PM on March 17, 2010 [8 favorites]


Rangeboy: Wait, why can't I just bludgeon you to death with my fist-sized diamond and take the can opener? Did this really not occur to anyone else?

First thing I said. Except I added cannibalism to the list, because I imagine facing a crate of tuna and nothing else to eat until you starve to death, one last go-round with red meat would be pretty irresistible.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:30 PM on March 17, 2010


Ya know ... gotta really love this place, sometimes.

Circumstances beyond my control resulted in my finding myself anchored out in a bay while the renovations at my house are completed. So I bought one of those G3 Wireless sticks, and signed up for the service, and currently am paying for every byte I use with this device. Having finished work, I wondered if would be worth the cost to surf purely for entertainment; and I naturally wandered over to the Filter where I discovered discover this gem of a post, and the awesome thread.

I had never heard of this before. Fascinating. So ... thanks for all the links everyone.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:52 PM on March 17, 2010


I have some friends in art history who claim that the FBI or Interpol know exactly where the artwork is, and that it's in the possession of a government official from some other country. Apparently the price for the return of the stolen paintings is the release of some political prisoners. Anyone else ever heard this rumor?

This is one of my favorite mysteries; thanks for the post!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 10:00 PM on March 17, 2010


I have some friends in art history who claim that the FBI or Interpol know exactly where the artwork is, and that it's in the possession of a government official from some other country. Apparently the price for the return of the stolen paintings is the release of some political prisoners. Anyone else ever heard this rumor?

Wow, who could that possibly be.
posted by breath at 10:16 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Twenty years? Fuck I'm old.

I took this incredibly personally when it happened. I'd spent many happy hours at the Gardner, and because it's so small, you can see and get to know all of it quite intimately, especially if you're local. My friends and I went there a lot when we were in highgschool. Everything there felt like "mine" and it was awful when someone came and stole "my" paintings. Fuckers.
posted by rtha at 10:32 PM on March 17, 2010


sorry for the derail, but if you have a show about a time traveller and you want to write a story about the Mona Lisa being stolen from the Louvre, I wonder why you would not build it around the occasion when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.

Actually, it's still considered one of the best serials (stories) ever. It's my personal greatest moment of time travel mindfuck in the entire Who oeuvre. When I first saw it broadcast (on my local PBS station) I just about died of nerd joy.

Besides, I'd already seen the Mona Lisa stolen[hulu].
posted by dhartung at 11:23 PM on March 17, 2010


I KNOW IT'S AN HOUR PLANE RIDE BUT WTF BATMAN?
posted by The Whelk at 12:24 AM on March 18, 2010


ricochet biscuit: How much is my diamond worth?

Your life.

(Am I doing this right?)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:08 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The forger has earned ten million for a few weeks' work...

The glaze in a Vermeer is built from many thin applications of a linseed oil base, it has to dry for as long as a week or two, and then another thin layer is applied. If you put on a thick layer of linseed oil it will crinkle on the surface as it dries out.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:26 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can of tuna, desert island, check. Reminds me of a classic joke.

You have three men stranded for at least 6 months, and one case of tuna. One is a priest, another a physicist, and the third an economist.

Somehow, to survive, they must open the tuna cans.

Priest says "I can handle this one, boys." And he kneels in front of the tuna and begins to implore God to open the tuna and spare their lives. After about an hour of this, the physicist, disgusted, intervenes and says, "my turn, let me show you how science handles these problems." He scratches some calculations in the sand, builds a catapult from branches, and proceeds to launch the first can of tuna at precisely the calculated angle into a rocky cliff just above the beach. The can bounces back, dented but unopened. He revises the calculations, tries again, and just dents up another one. By this point, the other two are worried that this is going to use up all the tuna.

Finally, after biting his tongue for the last few hours, the economist steps forward and declares that both his comrades are stuck in the past. He's got a first rate econometric model that can open the tuna cans.

And so he simply says: "Assume a can opener."

That's all I have.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:29 AM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rembrandt, Vermeer... when will it end??
posted by crapmatic at 1:37 AM on March 18, 2010


JUST CONFIRMED - one of the pieces stolen in this heist, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, showed up an episode of the Venture Bros.: Victor. Echo. November. The supervillein Phantom Limb tries to sell it to a Mafioso, but Dr. Girlfriend complains that selling stolen art is a lame kind of villainy.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 2:26 AM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm just waiting for a team of bank thieves posing as FDIC agents to 'take over' a failing bank and clean out their remaining cash reserves.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:46 AM on March 18, 2010


Have you not heard of Vermeer's classic Two Mefites on an Island with a Crate of Canned Tuna, Two $1.29 Can Openers, and a Large Diamond?

It's often overlooked, overshadowed by his more-popular Plate of Beans.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:24 AM on March 18, 2010


The real story is not whether a diamond can open a can of tuna or not (although I happen to think it can). The real story is what happens afterwards.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
How's the tunafish?

NATHANCASWELL:
It's tunafish.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
So much the better, so much the better. (Pause.) What was it you wanted to know?

NATHANCASWELL:
I've forgotten. (Chews.) That's what annoys me. (He looks at the tunafish appreciatively.) I'll never forget this tunafish. (He licks the lid meditatively.) Ah yes, now I remember.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
Well?

NATHANCASWELL:
(his mouth full, vacuously). We're not tied?

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
I don't hear a word you're saying.

NATHANCASWELL:
(chews, swallows). I'm asking you if we're tied.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
Tied?

NATHANCASWELL:
Ti-ed.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
How do you mean tied?

NATHANCASWELL:
Down.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
But to whom? By whom?

NATHANCASWELL:
To your man.

RICHOCHET BISCUIT:
To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment.
posted by jeremias at 5:08 AM on March 18, 2010


I just don't get why people steal art from a museum. What are they going to do with it? Sell it and have people hang it on their wall in their home? You could never have anyone over then. "Isn't that a Picasso that was in the museum?"

"Ummmm no no, I bought this piece of crap from Art.com. Seriously."
posted by stormpooper at 6:14 AM on March 18, 2010


I like the thrill of knowing that I have stolen art on my walls.*


*You can steal from yourself right?
posted by oddman at 6:28 AM on March 18, 2010


The Phantom Limb has them
posted by Scoo at 6:52 AM on March 18, 2010


Tuna. Can-opener. Diamond. Now ro-sham-bo!

At least that's what I would do.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:53 AM on March 18, 2010


that was one of the first episodes of Venture Bros, and I was utterly charmed by their choice of a painting for phantom limb. I figured a tiny segment of their audience would get the joke, but there it was without them pointing it out.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:10 AM on March 18, 2010


FBI puts up billboard to solve 1990 art heist.
posted by ericb at 7:21 AM on March 18, 2010


One of the interesting details was the Gardner Museum had no insurance for any of its holdings, since such would be prohibitively expensive. So, they have not been able to make any claims.
posted by ericb at 7:29 AM on March 18, 2010


"Since the robbery, the museum has obtained insurance and has expanded its security system. Today, the security staff is larger than any other department in the museum."
posted by ericb at 7:36 AM on March 18, 2010


BTW -- for those in Massachusetts (and southern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) tonight's Chronicle (on WCVB) covers The Gardner Heist. Preview video.
posted by ericb at 7:44 AM on March 18, 2010


I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned yet here ... In 2006, PBS's Independent Lens series aired the documentary Stolen, about this heist and the various suspects and leads over the years.

Independent Lens: Stolen

IMDB: Stolen (2006)

The IL site has several video previews and other fascinating backup material, but I recommend that you just watch the damn movie. It's available on Netflix.
posted by intermod at 7:47 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Stolen website is the "history's greatest art theft" link, but thanks for the additional links, intermod.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:51 AM on March 18, 2010


A few years after the theft I performed as a soloist with the Gardner Chamber Orchestra. I ended up playing from the (internal) balcony that overlooks the courtyard, and because of the siting of the orchestra and audience we used the balcony that exits the Dutch Room, where the big Rembrandts had been. Concert night, museum is closed to all but ticket holders, and I'm escorted up to the Dutch Room by a very friendly security guard who sat -- just barely out of sight of the audience -- on a bench 2 feet away from me as I played the concerto, then walked me downstairs.

I don't think I've ever seen a better example of security guards taking their job Extra Special Super-Duper Seriously.
posted by range at 8:57 AM on March 18, 2010


Ach, I was going to make a post about this today having just read The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 9:13 AM on March 18, 2010


ricochet biscuit: There is a much more elegant of the former scenario, which is where you (the thief) negotiate with a half-dozen or more buyers and contact a skilled art forger.
That's one of my favorite movies.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:35 AM on March 18, 2010


"The stuff you see in the movies—some computer geek hacking into the museum's mainframe and disabling the alarms so his buddies can rappel in from the air ducts—just isn't realistic. I don't care how good you are; a top-notch security system is impossible to outsmart, and it's certainly not worth the effort. The best way to successfully execute a big score is still the way we did it when we took the Rembrandt: go in while the museum's open, grab the painting off the wall and muscle your way out."

Makes sense, but this is pretty badassed: The Untold Story of the World's Biggest Diamond Heist
posted by Jim Slade at 9:48 AM on March 18, 2010


@yhbc, I've shown the copulating rabbits to all of the guests I take to the Gardner Museum, including my mother...no lie. :)
posted by airgirl at 9:52 AM on March 18, 2010


I was listening to WBUR, the local NPR station here in Boston, this morning, and they were discussing this. One guest put forth the Whitey Bulger theory with a slight twist - that he's keeping them in case he's ever caught, so as to trade them as part of a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.
posted by atbash at 10:54 AM on March 18, 2010


The glaze in a Vermeer is built from many thin applications of a linseed oil base, it has to dry for as long as a week or two, and then another thin layer is applied. If you put on a thick layer of linseed oil it will crinkle on the surface as it dries out.

Well, you've certainly showed me.

So the scheme takes six months instead of two months.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:55 AM on March 18, 2010


I don't care how good you are; a top-notch security system is impossible to outsmart

*Puts on Thé à la Menthe. Stretches.*
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:40 PM on March 18, 2010


Well, you've certainly showed me. So the scheme takes six months instead of two months.

Myself, I'd allow at least 18 months to counterfeit a Vermeer. You might be talking 40 layers of glaze, especially because you'd have to err on the side of caution, because if you go too heavy you'd have to start over. Once it was done, I'd accelerate the aging by putting it through 4 hour cycles of high and low temperatures and high and low humidity, bake it with UV and infra red radiation, wash it with a slurry made from dust found in some old bell tower. You'd have to find a period piece of canvas to start with, and mix all your own paints according to the customs of the day. You'd have to start out with a period of testing.

Of course, if you were pawning it off on some backwoods third-world narco-terrorist, and you could pull a switch on the hand off, then I'd just ink jet print it on canvas.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:11 AM on March 19, 2010


Of course, if you were pawning it off on some backwoods third-world narco-terrorist, and you could pull a switch on the hand off, then I'd just ink jet print it on canvas.

You'll be the courier for that one, yes?
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:57 AM on March 19, 2010


I'm a little late to the party here, but I totally wanted to post this! I saw I was beaten to the punch and sort of checked out for a few days to do other things. Thought people might be interested in this great video.
On Thursday 4 March 2010, the Gardner Museum hosted the event titled "The Gardner Theft: 20 Years Later." Listen here to Anthony Amore, Director of Security, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in conversation with Tom Ashbrook, host of National Public Radio's On Point as they talk about the heist.
posted by Arbac at 1:16 PM on March 22, 2010


Book Tells of Undercover Operation to Recover Stolen Gardner Artwork
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:14 PM on April 6, 2010


In 2006, PBS's Independent Lens series aired the documentary Stolen...

Which is now available on Netflix (CD and streaming).
posted by ericb at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2010


Mr. Burns did it!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:28 AM on April 12, 2010


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