March 18, 2011

Lost art

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum sits in a quiet, parklike setting on the Fenway in Boston. a leafy street that is also home to the Museum of Fine Arts. Very little foot traffic there, especially at two a.m.

The Gardner

That was the time a gang of art thieves broke into the little museum on March 18, 1990, overwhelmed two guards and stole nearly half a billion dollars worth of paintings.

Palazzo Barbaro

Neither the thieves nor the art has ever been found.

Among the thirteen works of art were a Vermeer, a Manet, some Rembrandts,  and a Degas or two.  The Gardner was a jewel of a museum, modeled on the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice and its collection had been guided by Bernard Berenson.  Isabella Gardner left an endowment for the museum and strict instructions that nothing in it could ever be changed or – a peculiar threat – it would all go to Harvard.

In the 21 years since the theft, none of the works has surfaced.  The FBI, which was heavily criticized for their handling of the case, has kept all the works on their art fraud website – you are invited to call if you spot them.

Manet, Chez Tortoni

The guards, btw, weren’t much help – they had been wrapped in duct tape and handcuffed to heating pipes and weren’t even sure how many villains were involved.

Theories about the robbery still abound.  It was first rumored that the IRA was behind it, but that has been discounted over the years and focus has shifted to a criminal mastermind who might have organized it while still in jail.  A great summary of likely perpetrators can be found here.

Are these great paintings stored in a warehouse somewhere?  Or are they being enjoyed by some uber-rich art lover in a secret secure location? No one knows, but no one forgets – the Gardner has left the empty frames permanently on display to remind us all.


Vermeer, The Concert




  1. In 1988 Jane Langton’s Murder at the Gardner was published. The art theft she imagined was so similar to the one that actually took place two years later that she had to spend a great deal of time with police and FBI agents over the next few years.


    Comment by Jane McCullam — March 18, 2011 @ 6:46 am | Reply

  2. Definitely a place I’d like to visit. Remembered the theft but didn’t know the building. I like the architect’s interpretation of the palazzo.


    Comment by Carol — March 19, 2011 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  3. intreeging and great picture thank you, Jean.


    Comment by avery — March 19, 2011 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

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