One of the greatest museum heists in history, the art theft of the Isabella Gardner museum remains one of the most interesting property theft stories of all time and has captured the attention of millions around the globe.
The robbery itself occurred on the 18 March 1990 and lasted for only over 81minutes but caused considerable damage as paintings estimated to be worth around $500 million was stolen with none ever being recovered.
The museum, containing the collection of paintings carefully chosen and acquired by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner(1840-1924), opened to the public in 1903 and contains a variety of paintings, tapestries , sculptures, and decorative arts.
The building itself was built in the style of Venetian architecture and was a place built to fulfill the dream of her and her late husband’s desire to build a place to display all the paintings that they had acquired over the years. On her death, her will stated that none of the paintings be sold or rearranged and that no new paintings should be added to the collection either. She wanted the building to preserved with minimum changes made to the original structure.
The museum was running on low funds during the 1980s which left it lacking in proper maintenance.The museum lacked basic building maintenance and climate control until the FBI uncovered a plot by the Boston criminals to rob the museum after which they had to improve security. They did so by installing 60 infrared motion detectors and a closed-circuit television system with four cameras placed around the building’s perimeter. In addition to this, they hired more security guards. There were, however, many flaws with the system. There were no cameras inside the building and the only way to alert the police was by pushing a button the security desk.
On the night of the robbery, there were only two security guards in attendance, namely Richard Abath,23 and Randy Hestand,25. While Abath was one of the regular security guards, it was Hestand’s first time on the night shift.
The robbery began at midnight on 18th March while the St Patrick’s day celebrations were still going on. The robbers were disguised as policemen responding to a disturbance at the museum. Witnesses claim to have spotted them around 12:30 but were mistaken for actual policemen.
Within the museum, Abath was taking the first round, leaving his partner at the security desk. He patrolled the galleries with a flashlight and walkie talkie and was on patrol when fire alarms sounded from different rooms on the 3rd floor. He, however, could not locate any fire or smoke and so went to the security room to check the fire alarm control panel which actually indicated a fire in different rooms. He assumed that there was a malfunction in the panel and shut it down. He resumed his rounds, pausing only to open the side door and shutting it again without giving any explanation. He returned to his desk at 1:00 am.
The robbers parked near the museum and walked up to the museum door. They contacted Abath by pressing a buzzer which connected them to Abath through an intercom. They claimed to be responding to a disturbance at the museum. Abath could see the men in uniform through the closed-circuit television and assumed that one of the St Patrick’s day revelers had caused some disturbance along the perimeter and the police were there to check it.
Violating museum protocol, Abath lets them into the building and into the foyer that separated the side door from the rest of the museum. He was asked to call Hestead back into the room which he promptly did. Abath observes that the mustache on the taller person seemed fake.
One of the policemen steps tells Abath that he seemed familiar and that he could have warranted for arrest on him. He was asked to step away from the desk and provide identification. He complied immediately, and in doing so stepped away from the one button that could call the real police to the museum.
He was immediately pushed against the wall and handcuffed, but noticed that he was not searched. During this time, Hestead returned to the room and was himself handcuffed.
The robbers then revealed their intention to rob the museum and then duct-taped their eyes and heads, and without asking for directions, took them to the basement.
The thieves first went to the Dutch Room on the second floor. They smashed the device that set off when they stepped too close to the painting. The device was meant to ring when people stepped too close to the paintings.
They took the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black among other paintings. They smashed the glass on the paintings by throwing the paintings on the floor. They then proceeded to cut out the main painting from the frame using a blade.
‘The concert ‘ by Vermeer was among the paintings that were stolen.
The then took the Chez Tortoni from the blue room on the first floor.
The robbers made sure the guards were comfortable, took the recordings of them entering the building and the print out data the motion detector cameras took of their movements within the building. The hard drive data on the motion detector was left untouched.
The frame of Chez Tortoni was left at the security desk.
The doors were opened once at 2:40 and once at 2:45 to transfer the paintings to their vehicle.
The police were alerted in the morning after the replacement guards turned up for duty. They were alerted by the security director.
SUSPECTS/PEOPLE OF INTEREST
There are a variety of suspects in the case, some of them are given below.
5)Anonymous letter to museum director in1994
13 items were stolen in total with the overall worth being estimated to be around $500 million.
1)The Concert– Vermeer
2 ) The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt
3 ) A Lady and Gentleman in Black– Rembrandt
4 ) Landscape with Obelisk – Flinck
5 ) Chez Tortoni– Manet
6 ) Self-Portrait – Rembrandt
7 ) La Sortie de Pesage – Degas
8 ) Cortege aux Environs de Florence – Degas
9 ) Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 – Degas
11 ) Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 – Degas
12 ) Three Mounted Jockeys – Degas
13 ) An ancient Chinese gu
The case is still open and the museum offers a reward of over $10 million for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 artifacts in good condition. And as per the will of the late miss Isabella Stewart Gardener, no changes whatsoever have been made to the arrangement and the empty frames hang in the same spot.
All movement of the robbers were detected using motion detectors within the building.
Note: The article was cut short for length, you can read further details on www.gardnermuseum.org