The Mystery Encyclopedia

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

Five Hundred Million Dollars worth of artwork including paintings and statues from masters including Rembrandt,
Empty-frames-in-the-Isabella-Stewart-Gardner-Museum-in-Boston-where-13-paintings-were-stolen-in-1990

13 famous works of art and statues stolen from Boston museum

During the late hours of the night on March 18, 1990, 2 men looted the  Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum taking off with $500 million in artwork including 11 paintings and 2 statues.

Prologue

The events of March 18, 1990 sparked my interest in art theft and related thefts such as books, coins, and stamps. Another interest, art forgery, became a reading past time and fueled my desire to view as many masterpieces as I may before someone again took them from the public’s eye.

Events of The Heist

Five Hundred Million Dollars worth of artwork including paintings and statues from masters including Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas – 13 works in all. On the night of March 18, 1990, 2 men masquerading as police officers entered the museum through a side door – opened by the night security guard – and promptly tied up both guards and began looting works of art. The masqueraders entered the museum under the pretense of answer a call to a disturbance. This has lead investigators to doubt the testimony of one of the guards and consider the possible inside man theory.

Witnesses first saw the 2 thieves around 12:30 during a St. Patrick’s Day party. The witnesses saw what appeared to be 2 men dressed as police exit a hatchback on Palace Road near the side entrance.

Museum guards on duty that night were Rick Abath, 23, the usual night guard and Randy Hestand, 25, who was on his first night shift. The museum’s policy was for guards to alternate walking the galleries and sitting at the security desk – presumably to watch CCTV activity of the exterior. Guards maintained contact through walkie-talkie radios.

While Abath was on his first patrol on the night of March 18, several rooms sounded smoke alarms. Finding no sign of smoke, Abath disarmed the panel. Returning to his task of walking the galleries, Abath stopped to open and close the side door entrance.

Abath received notification from outside at 1:20 AM. The 2 thieves rang the buzzer at the side door, identified as police, and convinced Abath to allow them entry despite museum policy forbidding it. The fake police officers then handcuffed both guards and explained their plans to rob the museum. They were led to the basement, duct taped, and cuffed to pipes.

Choices of Items Are Confusing

The museum housed the personal art collection by collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). She first opened the museum to the public in 1903 and she continued to add to the collection until her death in 1924.

Experts were puzzled by the choice of artwork, since more valuable works were left untouched. The museum lacked necessary security improvements such as sensors, indoor cameras, and highly trained guards. As such, the thieves were able to spend an hour selecting and removing items. Since security was so slack, and the guards chose 2 worthless statues among many highly coveted works of art, investigators were left baffled by these choices.

Suspected Boston Organized Crime Involvement

Investigation by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents produced a theory that mobsters associated with the Boston mafia, and a gang in Dorchester, were behind the thefts. To this day, no organized crime figure has taken credit or used verifiable information to support this theory. In fact, both gangs deny taking the paintings.

2015 Announcement of Suspects Names

In 2015, The FBI introduced the names of suspects believed to be the 2 thieves George Reissfelder and Lenny DiMuzio. Both men are now deceased and the believed mastermind Carmello Merlino. In 2014, three men were announced by the FBI lead investigator Special Agent Geoff Kelly, Carmello Merlino, Robert Guarente, and Robert Gentile. Merlino and Guarente are both dead, and Gentile was released from prison in 2020. Gentile has refused to answer questions stating he was not involved in the heist (Sutton, 2014; Cascone,2015).

Museum Today

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.

Reward

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. According to Sutton (2014), there is a $5 million dollar reward and immunity from prosecution for the return of the art.

Why is this a Mystery

The mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist begins with the odd behavior of the normal night shift guard, Rick Abath. He opens the side door which is considered against protocol, he turns off the alarm panel, and he opens the door for the fake police, which is also against protocol. The thieves loot the museum for seemingly random pieces of art, some worth nothing, leaving behind more valuable pieces. 

Citations

Cascone, S. (2015, March 15). After 25 Years, FBI Knows Who Was Behind Daring Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist. ArtNet News. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/isabella-stewart-gardner-heist-solved-283368 

Sutton, B. (2017, June 20). FBI Claims to Have Spotted Works From Gardner Museum Heist. Artnet News. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/fbi-claims-to-have-spotted-works-from-gardner-museum-heist-25626