What Was the Biggest Art Theft in History?

The robbery that happened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains the biggest art theft in history and one of the most puzzling art crimes of all time.

Jan 12, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

biggest art theft in history


In March 1990, two men in police uniforms broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and left with thirteen artworks worth about half a billion dollars. The stolen paintings included a priceless Vermeer and several Rembrandts. Despite many details and names uncovered, the crime still remains unsolved. But what exactly happened on the night of the world’s biggest art theft, and is there any chance the paintings might show up?


The Location of the Art Theft: Who Was Isabella Stewart Gardner?

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Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn, 1894, via the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Bostom


Isabella Stewart Gardner was a famous art collector, an eccentric philanthropist, and the founder of the museum that bears her name. Gardner, the daughter of a wealthy linen merchant, became one of the most influential art patrons of all time. Gardner believed that her mission in life was to bring high art to her country. A frequent traveler to Europe, she felt that her fellow citizens deserved to have a chance to experience great art and beauty at home. Over the year, she amassed a vast art collection ranging from antiquity to modernity.


The museum building was planned and constructed under the close supervision of Gardner. She also acted as the museum’s chief curator, arranging the works in a way that would complement various pieces of her eclectic collection. She became so attached to her creation that she directly prohibited rearranging or selling artworks even after her death. According to Gardner’s will, in the event of any alterations happening, the remaining works should be immediately sold through a Parisian auction house. Gardner’s oeuvre remained intact until one night in 1990.


What Happened on March 18, 1990?

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after the heist, March 1990, via Rehs Galleries


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On March 17th, Boston celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a traditional parade held in the southern part of the city. To contain a crowd fueled with considerable amounts of alcohol, most of the city’s police were watching the scene. The area around the museum was mostly quiet. Only two guards were on duty, taking turns to do rounds through the galleries. Around midnight, the fire alarm went off. The guards did not pay much attention to it, knowing the museum security system was flawed and outdated.


Around 1:20 a.m., two men in police uniforms rang the buzzer of the museum’s side door, claiming they were there because of a disturbance complaint. The guards were unaware of anything unusual happening but let the presumed officers inside. The thieves then handcuffed the guards and revealed their true intentions. After being told not to cause any trouble in order to avoid punishment, one of the guards laughed and said the museum did not pay him enough to do anything like that anyway.


art theft gardner dutch room
The Dutch Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston today, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


The thieves spend eighty-one minutes in the museum, rummaging through the collection without any rush. After taking thirteen objects from the display, they vanished leaving the guards behind. Several hours later, the museum workers came to the building to start their workday but could not get inside. After the Boston police unlocked the door, no one had any doubts about what had happened inside during the night.


The theft happened just half a year after the appointment of Anne Hawley as museum director. She was the first woman in history to hold this position. As the new director, Hawley faced many issues, including a shocking lack of funds. Months before the robbery happened, she had to make a tough choice between installing a new climate control system to keep the collection safe on the inside or updating security mechanisms.  At the time, damage from weather conditions and moisture felt like a more pressing issue than a remotely possible heist.


The Mystery of Stolen Artworks

vermeer concert painting
The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, 1663-1666, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


While the story of the Gardner Museum heist is perplexing enough on its own, one of the most confusing elements of it was the actual list of the stolen artworks. The loss of Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Concert brought the most significant damage to the collection. Experts believe that only 34 paintings by Vermeer exist today, which makes the loss of each one of them tragic.


Another dramatic loss was Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm of the Sea of Galilee, the only known seascape painted by the Dutch master. The robbers also planned to take one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and even took it off the wall, but left it for an unknown reason. They did not just extract the canvases from their frames, they threw them on the floor to break the protective glass and then crudely cut the paintings out. The barbaric manner of cutting the paintings out of their frames showed how invaluable the stolen pieces were to the robbers. Given the thick layers of base coating, paint, and varnish on an average painting, cutting it out with a knife would be a tiresome and time-consuming task which would inevitably result in great damage to the paint layer.


flinck obelisk painting
Landscape with an Obelisk by Govaert Flinck, 1638, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Bostom


While the identities of the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum thieves remain unknown, their expertise, or lack thereof, is indisputable. While they managed to lay hands on a Vermeer and several Rembrandts, the rest of the stolen works represented a diverse and illogical set of objects. They took a painting by Rembrandt’s student Govaert Flinck, several low-quality sketches by Edgar Degas, an old yet inexpensive Chinese vase, and a bronze eagle that decorated the top of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard flagpole.


The thieves spent almost ninety minutes rummaging through the collection, picking objects from different rooms and galleries, but paid no attention to the most precious works on display. Several works by Titian remained intact, as well as those by Sandro Botticelli, John Singer Sargent, and many others. As the investigators believe, the thieves had a specific set of objects to steal for their client but no knowledge of art. Thus, propelled by their instant success, they could have started picking up random pieces that caught their attention.


manet tortoni painting
Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet, 1875, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


The painting Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet remained the most confusing part of the whole loot. While its value was unquestionable, it was the painting’s location that made no sense. Chez Tortoni belonged to the so-called Blue Room, the gallery located a floor away from the Dutch room, which suffered the most damage. The motion detectors throughout the museum recorded thieves’ movements during the heist, but they had no record of anyone entering the room after 1:20 a.m. According to the detectors, the last person approaching Manet’s painting was the museum guard Rick Abath, whom the robbers would allegedly attack minutes later.


Suspects and Possible Motives

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Sketches of the heist suspects made by the FBI according to the witnesses’ descriptions, via Business Insider


The art market is small, and selling a stolen piece, especially one of such significance, without attracting unwanted attention would be an impossible task. For that reason, the investigators believed a particular client ordered the heist intending to keep the paintings or use them in their operations. Art pieces similar to those stolen in Boston often acted as collateral in drug deals and negotiations with the FBI. Mafia members would sometimes offer stolen works to the authorities in exchange for their bosses’ freedom.


This motive was seen as primary during the early stage of the investigation, with several FBI informants confirming it and hinting at particular personas of the Boston crime scene. However, as the investigation went on, more names started appearing on the list of potential thieves, but many of those people were mysteriously murdered. Although it did not automatically mean that the murders had something to do with the investigation—after all, the people on the list were career criminals and members of various Boston gangs at war with each other—the coincidence was unnerving. The only thing proven was that all ties somehow revolved around the Italian-American Patriarca crime family.


rembrandt lady gentleman painting
A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


Many investigators suspected that the robbery could have been an inside job. One of the immediate suspects was the guard named Rick Abath who was on duty on the night of the heist. Abath was an odd person for the museum guard occupation: an aspiring rockstar, he had no interest in art or museums. He frequently showed up to his shifts intoxicated and openly hated his job. According to Abath’s colleagues, he also invited his friends and acquaintances to visit him during night shifts despite security protocols directly prohibiting unauthorized visitors. Moreover, Abath was the last person to approach Manet’s painting which later disappeared. Abath was never arrested, but some investigators believe he could have taken the work off the wall and given it to the thieves.


Will The Mystery Of The Biggest Art Theft Be Resolved?

art theft rembrandt storm painting
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


The value of the stolen works grows year by year as the art market continues inflating. In 1990, the estimated value of the stolen collection amounted to $200,000, but thirty years later, it exceeded half a billion. New details and leads continue to emerge from time to time. Over time, various individuals have come forward offering assistance in recovering the artworks in exchange for immunity. However, no significant progress had been made public. Although, in 2015, the FBI admitted that the unnamed thieves were already deceased.


In August 1997, an art dealer and a criminal William Youngworth called the Boston Herald journalist Tom Mashberg claiming he knew the whereabouts of the stolen works and could return them under certain conditions. After taking Mashberg to his warehouse, Youngworth showed him a rolled canvas that looked similar to Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and even provided the journalist with paint samples to check the authenticity. However, the subsequent FBI raid of the warehouse brought no result. The analysis of paint chips showed that while the paint had indeed belonged to Rembrandt’s era, the pigments did not match those on the actual painting. One thing is certain: sometimes, the lack of information can provide hope. Three decades later, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the artworks.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.