The Mysterious Story of the Biggest Art Heist in History

Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual way. It is the producing of works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. This can be done in various ways; music, painting, literature, dance, to name a few.

It is a powerful tool for stimulating our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or ideas. And, to take the leap to this article, it can be quite an investment, with values sometimes reaching (or even passing) $100 million. Art pieces have even evolved to become a currency themselves. Criminals and art thieves use stolen artwork as bail. Some call it a “get-out-of-jail free card”. This is the unresolved mystery of the biggest art heist in history, and it is full of conspiracies, open questions, and mystery.

What happened?

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts was built for passionate art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner to house her collection. She opened the doors to the public in 1903 and continuously expanded her collection until she died in 1924.

In her last will, she ordered that the arrangement of the artwork should never be changed, expanded, or decreased. She left a $3.6 million endowment and to pay respect to the founder, ever since the art theft, the empty picture frames of the stolen art pieces are still up on the walls. They are a constant reminder of the missing works and the longing for their expected return.


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located in Boston, Massachusetts. It is close to the Museum of Fine Arts, Simmons University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Furthermore, it is walking distance from the James P. Kelleher Rose Garden. It was built to evoke a 15th-century Venetian palace and houses the founder’s art collection on three floors and a garden courtyard.

Most visitors are drawn to come here because of the intimate atmosphere, which is very different from modern art museums like the Louvre, for example. It is generally lowly lighted, which induces the feeling of visiting Isabella Stewart Gardner’s private home, which just so happens to host a great collection of art, instead of an open art museum.

The different stories all host different rooms for different arts. The ground floor is divided into five rooms with art pieces by John Singer Sargent, Matisse, Degas, and Manet. Works by artists like Rubens, Fra Angelico, Raffael, Rembrandt and Vermeer can be admired on the first floor. Giotto, Guardi, Botticelli, and many more are exhibited on the second floor.

This is a picture showing the fassade from the inner garden of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.
Source: John Thomas / Unsplash


First and foremost, the actual theft took place in the early morning of March 18, 1990, which was the day after St. Patrick’s Day. But to truly understand the art heist, it is necessary to look at the background of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The financial strain on the museum got continuously worse but got to a peak in the 1980s. There was no climate control system (which would be beneficial for visitors and the art), no insurance on the masterpieces and it was in desperate need of building maintenance. In 1982, the FBI uncovered a planned robbery of the museum, for which reason the holders gathered funds to improve the security system. Improvements included 60 infrared motion detectors and four cameras around the building’s perimeter.

The only way that the police could be alarmed was one (keep in mind, the museum’s size is 6.880 m²) button at the security desk at the side entrance. Obviously, that was not enough. Moreover, the guards were mostly not qualified for this job and only earned slightly above minimum wage. All flaws in the security system were an open secret among all guards.

This picture shows a portrait which John Singer Sargant painted of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Source: John Singer Sargant – Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner / Wikipedia


This might be the most interesting part of the art heist story, which is why it most definitely will be the most detailed. To thoroughly go over all parts, they are going to be divided for better understanding.


The two male thieves were first seen around 12:30 a.m. by several people coming from (or going to) a St. Patrick’s Day party nearby. They appear to have been disguised in police uniforms. The security policy dictates that one guard patrols the galleries while the other one waits by the security desk. During Abath’s (23-years-old) patrol, fire alarms went off in several rooms, but he assumed malfunction and shut them off.

After making a quick stop at the side entrance, opening the side door, and shutting it again, he completed his tour and returned to the desk. Afterwards, Hestand (25-years-old) started his round.

Picture of an older-looking art gallery displaying pieces on a red wall.
Source: Andrew Neel / Pexels


It was around 1:20 a.m. when the thieves walked up to the side entrance and rang the buzzer. Abath could see them on the security camera, and they explained they were here to investigate a disturbance. He noticed their uniforms and buzzed them in. They asked him to bring down anyone who was in the museum as well, whereupon he called Hestand.

One stated that Abath looked familiar, and they might have a warrant for arrest. He needed to provide identification and was forced against the wall and handcuffed, away from the only button which could alert the police. Once Hestand walked in, he was handcuffed by the taller thief.

They revealed their true intentions and wrapped duct tape around the guards’ heads and eyes. Bringing them down into the basement without needing to ask for directions, they told them not to tell anything to anyone because they would receive a reward in about a year. It was now about 1:35 a.m. and the thieves went inside the actual museum.

This picture shows a person with duct tape over their mouth just like in the art heist.
Source: Jackson Simmer / Unsplash

The actual theft 

Thanks to the infrared motion detectors, all movements of the art heist were recorded. The Dutch Room was the first room they entered at around 1:48 a.m. They took down the first art pieces and carelessly cut them out of their frames. One of them remained in this room and the other one went on into the Short Gallery. Soon afterwards, the second one joined him, and they took more art and objects.

Before they left the building, they checked on the guards and asked them if they were alright. They went to the security office one last time, took the video cassettes, the data printouts from the motion detecting equipment and left. Fortunately, the movements were still captured on a hard drive.

They left one frame on the desk, packed up the artwork and went out the side entrance. The door was opened at 2:40 a.m. and again at 2:45 a.m., which leaves the robbery lasting for an incredible 81 minutes without any notice.

Everything was discovered once the next shift of guards arrived and weren’t let inside. They called the security director who entered the building and called the police, because no one was at the watch desk. The police then found the guards still tied up in the basement.

This picture shows a watch with the time 2:45, which is when the thieves left the building and the art hiest was over.
Source: ByoungJoo / Getty Images

Stolen Art

This part might be quite hard to understand. Even experts are puzzled by the choice of stolen pieces. Many incredibly valuable works were left untouched, while some pieces they took seem to appear random since they are not valuable at all in comparison.

They took 13 pieces and, in 1990, the FBI estimated the value at $200 million, but during the late 2000s art dealers suggested the value to be around $600 million.

Dutch Room

In the first room of the art heist, they stole the most valuable art pieces. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, which was his only seascape, showing Christ calming a storm. Its estimated worth is around $100 million. They also took A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt and smashed them both on the floor, so their glass frames shattered. Moreover, they moved a self-portrait that Rembrandt drew but left it behind. Possibly because it was painted on wood and too heavy for transport.

Instead, they took a small self-portrait of Rembrandt, which was way less valuable. Furthermore, they removed Landscape with Obelisk, which was rumored to be a Rembrandt as well, but later accredited to Flinck, one of his understudies. The Concert by Vermeer, an estimated value of $250 million, was one of his 34 few paintings and was also stolen. Finally, they removed an ancient Chinese gu, which was used to drink wine.

The left picture shows The Concert by Vermeer. Two young women and a man. The right one shows Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Christ being calm during a storm.
Source: Left – Jan Vermeer / Wikipedia, Right – Rembrandt Gardner Musuem / Wikipedia

Short Gallery

They began unscrewing the frame for a Napoleonic flag, but gave up halfway through, only taking the exposed eagle finial atop. Moreover, they took five sketches by Degas.

Blue Room

The final and only piece from the Blue Room stolen was Chez Tortini by Manet. The funny thing about this work is, that the motion detectors did not record any motion within the Blue Room during the time of the actual art heist. The only movement was Abath’s during his patrol.


This is a picture of the sketches of the two suspects in the art heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.
Source: FBI / Wikipedia

The FBI immediately took control since the artwork could likely cross state lines. The case is unique in many ways, but one is due to the lack of strong physical evidence. Neither footprints nor hair were left behind. It is hard to distinguish whether the fingerprints were from thieves or employees. The only “evidence” known is that one thief was about 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m), in his late 30s and medium built. The other one was around 6 feet 0 inches (1.83 m), in his early 30s and broader built.

Rick Abath

This picture shows Rick Abath.
Source: Matthew Cavanaugh / Boston Globe

Yes, you’ve read this name before. Rick Abath was one of the guards and he was investigated due to his suspicious behavior on that night. He opened and shut the side door without obvious reason, insisting it was part of his routine to check whether the door was really locked. However, one of his colleagues stated that supervisors would have put a stop to it once noticed.

Lastly, it is more than suspicious that no motion in the Blue Room was detected during the actual theft, but Chez Tortini was stolen. However, he remains innocent because the FBI declared the guards as too incompetent for such a crime.

Whitey Bulger

This picture shows Whitey Bulger in 2011.
Source: United States Department of Justice / Wikipedia

He was one of the most powerful crime bosses in Boston but claims to not have recognized the heist. An FBI agent, Thomas McShanes, investigated his connection to the case. Bulger seemed to have strong ties with the Boston Police, which could explain why the thieves had real uniforms.

Moreover, he seems to be involved with the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force. According to a retired art and antiquities investigator for Scotland Yard, the works are most likely in Ireland since Bulger gave them to the IRA.

Letter of 1994

This picture shows a sealed letter.
Source: John-Mark Smith / Pexels

In 1994, Anne Hawley (director of the museum) received an anonymous letter. The writer stated that he did not know the thieves but was a third-party negotiator. According to him, the art was stolen to reduce a prison sentence, but was no longer needed. They wanted immunity for all people involved and $2.6 million and conveyed information only known by the museum and the FBI to establish credence.

The museum was interested in answering. The negotiator had become fearful due to a perceived investigation by the FBI and explained they needed time to reevaluate. Hawley never heard of them again.

Merlino Gang

This picture shows Robert Gentile.
Source: This is a Robbery / Netflix

The names of the possible subjects from the Merlino Gang (Boston Mafia) were Robert Guarente and Robert Gentile.

Guarente died from cancer in 2004, but his widow Elene afterwards stated that he did own some of the stolen paintings. Once he got sick, he gave them to Gentile for safekeeping. However, Gentile denied everything and claimed he never knew of their whereabouts. He had to take a polygraph test which revealed him lying when stating he had no knowledge of the art heist. In a retest, he then noted that Elene Guarente showed him the missing Rembrandt self-portrait.

When the FBI searched his property, they found an empty flooded ditch. The only things left behind were a newspaper article about the art heist and a list with the prices of each missing art piece. However, no evidence was strong enough, and nobody was arrested.

Bobby Donati

This is an undated portrait of Bobby Donati, one of the main subjects of the art heist.
Source: Boston Police / Wikipedia

The notorious art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. talked with the authorities and named Bobby Donati as a subject, since he expressed an enormous interest in the finial. Apparently, he wanted to take the paintings to get Connor out of jail. This information led the way to antique dealer Youngworth. He was investigated by Tom Mashberg who agreed to drive to Brooklyn with him to see some of the paintings.

Youngworth claimed that five people were involved, two of them being Bobby Donati and his accomplice, Houghton. He wanted full immunity and Connor’s release, which made the negotiations very difficult. Stephan Kurkjian, an investigative reporter, connected the lines to Vincent Ferrara, who claimed that Donati confirmed his involvement in the art heist. Kurkijan believed that Donati wanted to use the paintings as bail for Ferrara since he could protect him from gang wars. Unfortunately, Donati was murdered in 1991.

End of the story?

Well, the end of the story is easy to summarize: Nobody was prosecuted, and the paintings never appeared again. Shortly after the robbery, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum promised a $1 million reward for anyone with leading information. In 1997, it was raised to $5 million and in 2017, which was obviously not that long ago, it doubled to $10 million. This is the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution.

The reward will go to anyone who has “information that leads directly to the recovery of all of their items in good condition”. Anyone willing to return items will not be prosecuted. Furthermore, the statue of limitations expired in 1995. Thieves and any other participants cannot be prosecuted.

This picture shows many $100 bills.
Source: John Guccione / Pexels

What is it about art?

The funny thing about art is that it is so subjective. The interpretation, the beauty, and obviously the value. The thieves left behind some of the most valuable paintings in the city at that time but made it a point to take other (materialistically) less valuable pieces with them.

Where did they get the police uniforms? How did they know the directions of the museum so well? Why did they stay for as long as 81 minutes without seeming to rush? Why was the selection so random? Who was involved? Where is the artwork?

These are all questions that still remain unanswered, even 30 years after the biggest art heist in history.

Feature image source: Tima Miroshnichenko / Pexels


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