Art thefts are interesting. They are ideal as movie subjects because of this. “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Monument Men,” “Entrapment,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” and “Hudson Hawk,” are just a few of my favorite examples. In fact, the security systems in use today’s museums are extremely sophisticated and intricate.
That said, there is one infamous art heist where, even with a relatively decent security system, thieves made off with more than a billion dollars worth of art… unquestionably a priceless find.
On March 18, 1990, early in the morning, everything happened.
Two guys wearing police uniforms were permitted entry to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum despite their being multiple barred doors and security measures in place. The fictitious police officers said they were responding to a call about a disturbance. They bound the security personnel and then ransacked the museum for the following 81 minutes.
The matter has still not been resolved more than 30 years later. There have never been any arrests. And not even on the illegal market have any of the works of art ever been found.
How The Museum Came To Exist
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was established in 1903 to hold Isabelle’s own collection of future masterpieces that she had amassed on her travels across the globe. Additionally, Isabella bequeathed a $3.6 million endowment to the museum when she passed away in 1924. Along with a priceless collection of artwork, it is equivalent to about $60 million in today’s money.
After reviewing the system at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1988, independent security consultants and the security director at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts made additional, significant modifications. Unfortunately, the museum was unable to pay for the upgrades AND The museum’s board of trustees did not approve the security upgrades because Gardner’s will placed restrictions on significant renovations. The motion to increase guard pay in order to recruit better applicants was also defeated by the board. They paid their guards somewhat above the minimum salary. The security guards at the museum were all well aware of the flaws in the museum’s security.
Rick Abath, 23, and Randy Hestand, 25, were the guards on duty on the night of March 18, 1990. Hestand had never worked the night shift before. Fire alarms began to sound as Abath was inspecting the area, but he didn’t see any smoke or flames. The fire alarm control panel in the security room indicated there was smoke in a number of rooms. He switched the system off after concluding that it was broken. He went back on patrol and stopped at the side door to the museum to open and close it. After midnight, he went back to the security desk. After that, Hestand made his rounds as required by museum policy.
The burglars who were posing as police officers rang the side door’s buzzer at 1:20 a.m. Through the intercom, they were able to contact Abath. He was informed that they were cops looking into a disturbance. On the closed-circuit television, Abath could see that they were dressed in police clothes. Given that it was St. Patrick’s Day, he assumed that a wild partygoer had scaled the fence and been seen. He opened the door for them. They asked Abath to come out from behind the desk, he complied – which put him too far from the button to alert the actual police. He was restrained and pushed up against the wall. Hestand soon entered the space once more, handcuffed as well. The guards were led to the basement and bound to a pipe with duct tape covering their heads and eyes.
The following 81 minutes were spent by the robbers breaking inside the museum. The infrared motion detectors captured footage of their moves throughout the structure. They began taking art off the walls and throwing it on the ground to break the glass so they could cut the canvasses out. They went to the security office and removed the printouts from the motion detectors as well as the videotapes of their entry on the closed-circuit cameras. At 2:45 a.m., they left by the side entrance. When the buzzer to let the morning shift guards in didn’t elicit a response, they sensed something was wrong. When the security director answered the phone and saw that no one was at the security desk, he dialed 911 to contact the police. The guards were still in handcuffs and bound up in the basement when the cops arrived.
The Most Valuable Stolen Item In The World
In total, thirteen works of art were stolen including works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Vermeer, and Flinck. Thefts included a piece of Chinese porcelain and a finial from a Napoleonic banner. These things were worth $200 million at the time. By 2000, it had increased to $500 million, and it is currently well above $1 billion.
Vermeer’s “The Concert” was the most valuable item stolen as he only painted 34 works. This has been dubbed the most expensive stolen item in history by experts.
None of the inquiries produced any results. The police and FBI investigated an anonymous letter the museum received in 1994, a known art thief in the area, various branches of the Boston Mafia – and that revealed nothing. Mafia member Bobby Donati, who had been spotted earlier that evening at a party close to the museum with a bag full of police uniforms, was the only credible lead available. Sadly, Donati was killed in a gang conflict in 1991.