Art of the Heist episode 2 – The Worlds Biggest Heist: It was the biggest art heist in American history – half a billion dollars’ worth of paintings snatched from the walls of a Boston gallery. The haul included a rare Vermeer and paintings by Rembrandt and Degas. Since then teams of FBI agents have worked on the case.
Art Of The Heist episode 2 investigates the most high profile art thefts of the 20th and 21st centuries fitting together the pieces of the crimes.
Art of the Heist episode 2 – The Worlds Biggest Heist
On March 18, 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the early hours. Guards admitted two men posing as police officers responding to a disturbance call, and the thieves tied the guards up and looted the museum over the next hour. The FBI has valued the haul at $500 million, and no arrests have been made and no works have been recovered. The museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the art’s recovery, the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution.
The stolen works were originally procured by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) and intended for permanent display at the museum with the rest of her collection. Among them was The Concert, one of only 34 known paintings by Johannes Vermeer and thought to be the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world.
Also missing is The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only seascape. Other paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck were stolen, along with a relatively valueless eagle finial and Chinese gu. Experts were puzzled by the choice of artwork, since more valuable works were left untouched. The collection and its layout are permanent, so empty frames remain hanging both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for their return.
The FBI and Art of the Heist episode 2 believes that the robbery was planned by a criminal organization. The case lacks strong physical evidence, and the FBI has largely depended on interrogations, undercover informants, and sting operations to collect information. They have focused primarily on the Boston Mafia which was in the midst of an internal gang war during the period. One theory is that gangster Bobby Donati organized it to negotiate for his capo’s release from prison; Donati was murdered a year after the robbery.
Other accounts suggest that the paintings were stolen by a gang in Dorchester, though they deny involvement even after a sting operation put some of them in prison. All have denied any knowledge or have given leads that were fruitless, despite being offered reward money, reduced prison sentences, and even freedom if they gave information leading to recovery of the art.
Stolen artwork – Art of the Heist episode 2
Thirteen works were stolen. In 1990, the FBI estimated the value of the haul at $200 million. and raised this estimate to $500 million by 2000. In the late 2000s, some art dealers suggested the haul could be worth $600 million.
The most valuable works were taken from the Dutch Room. Among these was The Concert by Dutch painter Vermeer (1632–75), one of only 34 paintings attributed to him. The painting accounts for half of the haul’s value, estimated at $250 million in 2015. Experts believe it may be the most valuable stolen object in the world. In the same room, the thieves targeted works by Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606–69). These included The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only seascape and the most valuable of his works stolen that night.
Estimates have placed its value at over $100 million since the robbery. The other Rembrandt works taken were A Lady and Gentleman in Black and a small postage stamp-sized self-portrait etching. The latter was previously stolen and returned in 1970. The thieves may have taken Landscape with Obelisk believing it was a Rembrandt; it was long attributed to him until it was quietly credited to his pupil Govert Flinck (1615–60) a few years before the heist. The last item taken from the Dutch Room was a bronze gu about 10 inches (25 cm) tall. Traditionally used for serving wine in ancient China, the beaker was one of the oldest works in the museum, dating to the Shang Dynasty in the 12th century BC. Its estimated value is only several thousand dollars.
In the Short Gallery, five sketches by French artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917) were stolen. They were each done on paper less than a square foot in size and made with pencils, inks, washes, and charcoal. They are of relatively little value compared with the other stolen works, worth under $100,000 combined. Also taken was a 10-inch-tall (25 cm) French Imperial Eagle finial from the corner of a framed flag for Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. There is a $100,000 reward for information leading to the return of the finial alone. It possibly appeared like gold to the thieves. Chez Tortoni by French painter Édouard Manet (1832–1883) was taken from the Blue Room; it was the only item taken from the first floor.