The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: The Largest Art Heist in History

Micaela Preble
December 6, 2022

Known as the most significant art theft in history, the 1990 art heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum still haunts historians.

Now some 30 years later,  the mystery remains of the whereabouts and location of the 13 missing masterpieces.

Discover all about the Gardner Museum heist, and find out about 10 famous art heists throughout history.

The Biggest Art Heist in History: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is in Boston, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) herself and featured art she collected. She wanted her art collection to be permanently exhibited for the public forever as education and enjoyment. 

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist is easily the biggest art theft in history.

It occurred on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as Boston police officers broke into the museum and made off with 13 works. 

The crime is still unsolved, and the missing artworks from the Gardner Museum heist are estimated to be an incredible $500 million.

Today, one would assume that a museum with an extensive collection from a prominent collector would have security to stop this kind of attack. However, this wasn’t the case with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Boston museum was well renowned for its beautiful architecture, with the collection held in Gardner’s Venetian palazzo-inspired home. 

After Isabella Gardner died in 1924, the museum gradually fell into disrepair, and security became increasingly lax. By 1990, this was common knowledge, leaving the museum an easy target.

Let’s get into the details.

Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt (c.1633)

The Biggest Art Heist in History: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is in Boston, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) herself and featured art she collected. She wanted her art collection to be permanently exhibited for the public forever as education and enjoyment. 

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist is easily the biggest art theft in history.

It occurred on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as Boston police officers broke into the museum and made off with 13 works. 

The crime is still unsolved, and the missing artworks from the Gardner Museum heist are estimated to be an incredible $500 million.

Today, one would assume that a museum with an extensive collection from a prominent collector would have security to stop this kind of attack. However, this wasn’t the case with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Boston museum was well renowned for its beautiful architecture, with the collection held in Gardner’s Venetian palazzo-inspired home. 

After Isabella Gardner died in 1924, the museum gradually fell into disrepair, and security became increasingly lax. By 1990, this was common knowledge, leaving the museum an easy target.

Let’s get into the details.

How Did The Robbery Take Place?

Did you know the entire heist lasted 81 minutes?

The heist occurred on March 18, 1990, during a rowdy Saint Patrick’s Day celebration outside. 

Here are the specifics:

  • At 1.24 AM, two men dressed as police officials pretended to respond to a Saint Patrick’s Day disturbance.
  • The burglars overpowered the two guards on duty and trapped them in the Gardner Museum basement. The guards, Rick Abath and Randy Hestand, were 23 and 25 years old. 
  • Then, they disabled the cameras and removed the art from their frames. The burglars departed at 2.45 AM. 
  • The following day at 8.15 AM, the morning shift guards arrived at the museum and found Rick Abath and Rand Hestand in the basement. 

What Was Stolen from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

Thirteen masterpieces were stolen from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 

They include:

  • The Concert by Johannes Vermeer (considered to be the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world)
  • Three pieces by Rembrandt: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only seascape), A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a small postage stamp-sized self-portrait etching
  • Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet
  • More artwork by Édouard Manet, as well as art by Govert Flinck
  • Five sketches by Edgar Degas (done on paper)
  • A Chinese gu (an ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel)
  • A gilded bronze French Imperial Eagle finial
  • Landscape with Obelisk by Rembrandt’s pupil, Govert Flinck

Who Stole The Art from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

Though the art heist remains unsolved, there is speculation about the identities of the thieves. These are among the most popular theories.

1. Security Guard Rick Abath

2. Boston Crime Boss Whitey Bulger

3. The Boston Mafia

4. Robert Guarente (a.k.a Bobby Guarente)

5. Robert Gentile

6. David Turner

7. George Reissfelder

8. Bobby Donati

Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632

1. Security Guard Rick Abath

The original theory was that Rick Abath played some role in the theft. 

Why? Art crimes of this nature typically require an inside source.

Security footage showed Abath opening and closing the door where the suspected thieves had entered.

Another suspicious factor was that the museum’s motion detectors did not signal during the time of the theft. In 2015, the FBI released security footage from March 17, the night before the robbery, of Abath buzzing in an unidentified man with an upturned collar. 

A New York Times reporter stated in 2015 that the police eventually cleared Abath as a person of interest.  

2. Boston Crime Boss Whitey Bulger

At the time, Whitey Bulger was heading the Winter Hill Gang. He had strong links to the Boston PD, which could explain how the two thieves obtained police uniforms. 

But Bulger stated he did not commit the art heist, and even sent some of his agents to figure out who committed the robbery on his ‘turf.’ 

3. The Boston Mafia

In 2013, the FBI announced that it had high confidence members of the Boston Mafia, run by Carmello Merlino, committed the crime. 

They were confident that the stolen art was transported to Connecticut and Philadelphia during the years after the theft. The FBI even discovered the culprits attempted a sale in 2002 in Philadelphia. However, the trail went cold shortly after. 

4. Robert Guarente (a.k.a Bobby Guarente)

Bobby Guarente was an associate of the Merlino gang, but died from cancer in 2004. Interestingly, in 2010, his widow Elene Guarente told the FBI that Bobby had owned some paintings. But after he got sick, he gave them to a friend for safekeeping.

5. Robert Gentile

According to Elene Guarente, the friend Bobby had allegedly given the paintings to was Robert Gentile (another Merlino gang associate). Robert maintained he did not know this. 

The FBI searched his home and found a March 1990 copy of the Boston Herald detailing the theft, along with a piece of paper showing how much each piece might be worth on the black market. The FBI found no concrete evidence linking Robert to the heist.

6. David Turner

In 1992, Merlino contacted his associate David Turner. 

Why? Merlino was arrested for drug trafficking. And, in an attempt to gain a reduced prison sentence, he told the authorities he could get the stolen paintings.

David was tasked to find them, but he couldn’t track them down. Nevertheless, authorities believed David could’ve been one of the thieves on that fateful night.

7. George Reissfelder

The FBI believed that George Reissfelder, who died in 1991, could’ve been the second accomplice. His sibling revealed they saw a painting similar to the Chez Tortoni in George’s bedroom, but a search yielded nothing.  

8. Bobby Donati

Bobby Donati was a criminal who was murdered in 1991. He got on the FBI’s radar after notorious art thief Myles Connor Jr. claimed Bobby Donati and David Houghton (who died in 1992) were the culprits. 

Myles Connor was incarcerated during the heist but shared that he’d previously worked with Donati. The two had even scouted the Gardner Museum, and Donati had been interested in the Eagle finial. 

What’s more? 

Houghton had visited Connor in prison. He’d told Connor the duo had organized the heist and would use the paintings to get Connor out of jail.

Fast forward to 1994: Anne Hawley, the Gardner Museum director, was sent an anonymous letter. 

The letter’s contents?

It said that the art was stolen to reduce a prison sentence, but the opportunity had passed. So the writer wished to negotiate its return for immunity and $2.6 million. If the museum agreed, they had to print a coded message in the Boston Globe.

Anne Hawley immediately contacted the FBI, and the Boston Globe printed the coded message. 

Shortly after, Hawley received an anonymous letter of acknowledgement. But, the writer was worried about the FBI’s involvement and needed time to re-evaluate options. Hawley never heard from them again. 

What Happened to The Stolen Paintings?

The Gardner Museum art heist case remains open.

Although the artworks still haven’t been recovered, visitors can visit the Garner in person or through a virtual tour showing the empty frames left behind.

And here’s the kicker:

The FBI and museum are offering a handsome reward of $10 million for information leading to the art’s recovery — the largest reward ever offered by a private institution.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist in Pop Culture 

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist has inspired individuals to create books, shows, and podcasts. 

The three of note include:

  • The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft: This true crime book by Ulrich Boser details a riveting account of the unsolved heist.
  • Last Seen: This true crime podcast by the Boston Globe discusses the confounding art heist.
  • This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist: This 2021 Netflix documentary series was directed by Colin Barnicle and co-produced along with his brother Nick Barnicle. Colin Barnicle and Nick Barnicle hoped to create awareness about the theft in hopes that more information would come forward. 

The Gardner Museum heist is by far the most prolific art crime ever. But there have been other famous heists throughout history.

9 Other Famous Art Heists in History

Let’s explore art history’s famous art heists.

1. Famed Mona Lisa Robbery from the Lourve, France (1911)

2. A Hollywood-Esq Heist at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada (1972)

3. Theft During the Winter Olympics, Oslo (1994)

4. Italian Job at The Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Italy (1997)

5. Whitworth Art Gallery Heist, England (2003)

6. Daylight Robbery at the Munch Museum, Oslo (2004)

7. Theft of a Two-Ton Sculpture at the Henry Moore Foundation, England (2005)

8. An International Chase After Theft at The Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden (2000)

9. Missing Vincent van Gogh Painting, Netherlands (2020)

1. Famed Mona Lisa Robbery from the Louvre, France (1911)

Did you know that this heist propelled the Mona Lisa to fame?

In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman, and two companions hid in a closet at the Louvre until it closed. They made off with the Mona Lisa painting the following morning. 

The art theft garnered so much international attention that the master thieves couldn’t sell the stolen painting. 

Instead, Peruggia stashed it and tried to sell it again 28 months later to a Florentine dealer. But the dealer double-crossed Peruggia and called the director of Uffizi Galleries. 

The director immediately called the police, and Peruggia spent seven months in prison for his art crime. 

2. A Hollywood-Esque Heist at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada (1972)

In 1972, a theft occurred at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The thieves entered through a skylight undergoing repairs and tied up the three guards on duty.

About 39 jeweled items and 18 paintings amounting to $2 million (at the time) went missing. In 2003, the stolen art was estimated to be worth $20 million. 

Among the stolen paintings were pieces by Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens. The Rembrandt painting alone was worth about $1 million.

Since then, only a few pieces have been found — the rest remain unrecovered. 

3. Theft During the Winter Olympics, Oslo (1994)

On the 1994 Winter Olympics opening day, two thieves broke into the National Museum in Oslo.

They stole The Scream by Edvard Munch and even left a note thanking the museum for the bad security. 

It took two years, but eventually, the stolen artwork was recovered, and four men went to prison.

Fun Fact: Edvard Munch created four versions of this famous artwork.

4. Italian Job at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Italy (1997)

In 1997, Gustav Klimt’s painting Portrait of a Lady was stolen from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi during preparations for a show.

Nearly 11 years later, a gardener at the Galleria made a discovery. He stumbled upon the stolen work partly hidden in a garbage bag behind a panel in the building. 

The plot twist?

Two men confessed to stealing this $66 million painting in a letter to an Italian journalist. They revealed they brought it back to the gallery four years after stealing it and hid it behind the panel. 

The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester discovered three famous paintings (valued at about $8 million) were stolen. 

The paintings were created by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. 

A few days later, police found the stolen art rolled up in a wet cardboard tube in a public toilet. 

The thieves even left a note revealing their goal was to point out the poor security at the museum. 

The police never apprehended the thieves.

6. Daylight Robbery at the Munch Museum, Oslo (2004)

Another version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream as well as his Madonna were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. 

The kicker: The heist took place in broad daylight.

The master thieves held the museum guards at gunpoint amidst crowds of people. 

Two years later, the police recovered the paintings and arrested six culprits. 

7. Theft of a Two-Ton Sculpture at the Henry Moore Foundation, England (2005)

In 2005, thieves made away with Henry Moore’s $18 million, two-ton Reclining Figure statue. 

The authorities never recovered the statue, nor did they catch the thieves. In fact, the police concluded the thieves may have melted down the statue for scrap metal. 

8. An International Chase After Theft at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden (2000)

In 2000, thieves attacked the National Museum in Stockholm and held the guards hostage with submachine guns. 

They made off (on a speedboat!) with one Rembrandt and two Renoir paintings, estimated to be about $45 million.

The following year, the thieves sent the police a ransom demand via a lawyer. But the police refused to pay it. 

Soon after, the police arrested the robbers. And a few months later, they even recovered one of the Renoir paintings. 

9. Missing Vincent Van Gogh Painting, Netherlands (2020)

The most recent heist occurred during the Covid lockdown in 2020 at the Singer Laren museum.

The item stolen was a van Gogh painting titled The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (valued at about $6 million). It was on loan from the Groninger Museum. 

The thief used a sledgehammer to break into the museum and bypassed many levels of security. 

Two months later, Arthur Brand, a Dutch art detective, received photos of the Van Gogh alongside a dated New York Times newspaper. 

In 2021, Arthur Brand and the Dutch police arrested a 58-year-old man. But they haven’t recovered the stolen artwork yet.

Throughout history, various iconic art pieces have been pilfered. Some were found along with the perpetrators, while others still remain unrecovered. 

Among the unrecovered art are the pieces stolen at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — now considered the worlds biggest art heist. 

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Want to know more? Head to the Masterworks website now. 


Micaela Preble
Micaela is an NYC-based art content writer covering art investing, art news, and art historical content. Micaela graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History with a minor in communication arts. During her time at GSU she was a member of The Design Group (DG) and Student Art League (SAL) while also actively participating in curating and volunteering at the Center for Art and Theatre.