The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is home to one of art history’s most astounding heists. With a record-breaking 13 stolen artworks valued at a staggering $500 million, the Museum holds the title of the largest recorded property theft in the world.
In March of 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers tricked the fairly incompetent night guard into breaking museum policy and letting them enter the Museum after hours. Upon handcuffing and tying up the guard in the basement, the two intruders spent the next 81 minutes cutting 13 masterpieces from their frames. At this surprisingly leisurely pace, the thieves completed the raid with two separate trips to their car. Of the stolen paintings, “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer currently holds the record for the most valuable unrecovered stolen work of art, with an estimated value over $200,000,000.
Among the many confounding factors contributing to the success of the heist, the updating of the security system was the most detrimental to the Museum. Due to the installation of a new camera system, the thieves were only recorded through a motion detection system, further concealing their identity from officials.
There are many theories as to what happened to the paintings and who is responsible for their disappearance. Was it in an inside job? Is it possibly linked to crime organizations? Did Boston’s mob have a hand in the event? All are possible theories. The FBI and the US Attorney’s Office continue an active investigation on the pieces. The FBI suspected the artworks to be moving throughout crime circles in Philadelphia until 2003 when the trail suddenly went cold. More recent investigation suggests that the pieces have most likely left the United States. As time moves on, it becomes increasingly difficult to track the whereabouts of the missing masterpieces.
Interestingly enough, the statute of limitations for prosecution has passed. Given that the Museum’s top priority is the safe return of the artwork, chief officials have stressed their intention to live up to this statute. The Museum offered an initial reward of $5 million to anyone who returns the paintings. Out of desperation for their return, the reward has been doubled to $10 million.
Today, the empty frames where the paintings once resided still sit vacant on the walls of the Museum as a reminder of this tragic incident and a symbol of hope for their safe return.