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A Crime Against Art: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

When you decide to go to an art museum chances are you are not going for a chance to look at empty frames. But for over 30 years that has been the case in certain galleries at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That was not always the case, however. Thirteen pieces were stolen one night and they have never been seen since. The museum was the brainchild of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was born into a wealthy family in 1840 in New York City. At just shy of 20 years old she married John Lowell “Jack” Gardner II and the couple moved to a fashionable neighborhood of Boston, living in a house on Beacon street that was a wedding gift from her father. The couple had a son, John Lowell Gardner III, but he tragically died before he reached his second birthday from pneumonia. Following the loss of their son the couple began their travels around the world in an attempt to ease Isabella’s depression. Their trips to Northern Europe, Russia, Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia over the next decades were all documented in journals that Isabella kept. On one such trip, this time to Italy, the Gardners spent time around many figures active in the art world in the late 1800s. It was in her time with these figures, many American and English expats, that she became inspired to create her own art collection.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1888, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in Boston in 1886 Isabella became the acquaintance of a Harvard student named Bernard Berenson who would eventually become her top art advisor and help her to acquire a great deal of her personal collection. One such piece of the collection acquired by Gardner was Vermeer’s The Concert, bought at auction for $6000, or the equivalent of just under $200,000 today. Just a year before the turn of the century, Jack passed from pneumonia. However, he and Isabella had been planning on purchasing land in Boston and building a museum to house their growing art collection and she continued on with those plans. The four-story museum, complete with a large courtyard garden, took two years to complete and she then moved into the private living space on the top floor with the lower floors dedicated to gallery space for her collection. Throughout the next 20 years Isabella Stewart Gardner continued collecting art and updating her collection of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, manuscripts, rare books, and more. After her death in 1924 she left an endowment to ensure that the museum would stay open for the public to be able to view the masterpieces that she dedicated her life to collecting. Her stipulations for this endowment were simple. The galleries should stay the same allowing for no new pieces to be acquired or existing pieces to be sold. All went according to plan for the next 65 years.

Willard Sears, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum planning sketch, watercolor on paper, Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Two security guards were on duty in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990 when two police officers arrived at the museum responding to a disturbance. One of the guards broke with protocol and allowed the men into the museum. From there they asked him to leave his desk and once he did they handcuffed both of the guards in the basement and then headed to the Dutch Room, the Blue Room, and the Short Gallery. By now you most likely have guessed that perhaps these men were not actually police officers and you would be correct. They were thieves that made off with what some call the greatest art heist in modern history; the value of which has been put at over $500,000,000. Police and FBI agents have searched over the last 30 years for these masterpieces but have, as of yet, come up empty. 

Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert.” (Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

Included in the pieces that were cut from their frames that still hang empty are multiple Degas, Rembrandts, and even a Vermeer among others. These last two artists are those most responsible for the high price tag of this robbery. One of the Rembrandts that was taken was Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. This Biblical scene, painted in 1633, is the only known seascape of his. Perhaps the most devastating loss was the Vermeer, however. His painting, The Concert, was one of only 37 remaining works of his, and there are some experts who have their doubts about three of those paintings being genuine. While it may not be the most flashy of paintings, it is incredibly rare and, therefore, incredibly valuable. Over the years there have been many theories about what happened to these priceless pieces of art. The FBI, however, believes they have found connections to organized crime circles in Boston being the perpetrators of the theft. Over 30 years later, though, the works are still missing without a trace. 

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee.” (Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

As we see over and over throughout history, art does truly imitate life. While the Gardner theft is one of the most famous thefts in history it is in no way the first to happen. Art heists have been occurring at least since the 1400s when Polish pirates stole a triptych by Hans Memling, a Dutch painter, that was headed to Florence but was instead hung behind an altar in Gdansk, Poland and is still part of the city’s national museum. Occurrences like this one provide the perfect plot for a movie. There’s danger, intrigue, and a whole lot of fun to be had with a good heist. Movies such as the Ocean’s 11 franchise and the Thomas Crown Affair and Dwight Schrute’s description of his perfect crime all serve as examples of what successful heists can look like. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist too serves as such an example. While this case has yet to be solved, let us all hope that in the years to come more tips come to light so that the empty frames can hold the masterpieces they were meant to and the museum founder’s wishes that the galleries never change can be once again be realized.

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By: Hanna Gish



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