A Netflix four-part documentary is shining a light on the unsolved infamous half a billion dollar heist of artwork from a Boston museum.
This is a Robbery recounts the story of the world’s biggest art theft, which saw 13 paintings, estimated to be worth $500million, taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on 18 March 1990.
Two thieves disguised as Boston police officers talked their way into the museum at 1:20am, handcuffed and blindfolded security with duct tape before snatching Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt’s only seascape – and The Concert, by Johannes Vermeer – which is valued at $250 million, and remains the most valuable stolen object in the world.
The FBI and Boston police have had several suspects over the years, but never had enough information to recover the art. The last known suspect David Turner, who had links to the Italian mob, was released from prison after a 21-year sentence in 2019 and still denies knowing where the works of art are hidden.
Netflix has renewed interest in the case and many viewers said they hoped to solve the mystery in order to snatch the $10million reward for the paintings’ safe return.
Netflix’s This is a Robbery recounts the story of the art heist that took place on 18 March 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. (pictured: Anne Hawley, curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, answers questions at a news conference in the museum’s garden area about the robbery)
13 artworks were taken from the museum during the 81-minute-long theft. Since then, the museum has showcased the work’s empty frames (pictured
Two thieves talked their way into the museum, telling the security guard at the watch desk that they were responding to a report of a disturbance.
Against museum policy, the guard, later identified as Rick Abath, let the two men into a locked foyer separating a side-door from the museum.
The two men approached Abath at his desk and asked him if anyone else was inside the museum with him, and, if so, to summon them over immediately.
Abath confirmed that another security guard, Randy Hestand, was also on duty and called him to the security desk.
Storm on the Sea of Galilea, pictured, by Dutch painter Rembrandt, was among the 13 paintings stolen at the museum
Swiftly, both of the men were handcuffed and blindfolded with duct tape, before being escorted down to separate areas in the museum’s basement.
From there, the two men moved swiftly through the museum and were captured by motion detectors in the Dutch Room at 1:48am. They smashed a bleeping device employed to warn patrons they were too close to the art and began ripping paintings from the wall.
First, they took the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, throwing them down on the marble floor and shattering their glass frames.
They then cut the canvases out of their stretchers with a blade. The two men also removed a large Rembrandt self-portrait however left it leaning against a cabinet.
Viewers were fascinated by the robbery’s story and many wanted to solve the mystery of the paintings’ theft
Police believe the men decided the oil painting may have been too large to transport, likely because it was painted on wood rather than canvas.
Which 13 pieces were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston?
The Concert – Vermeer
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt
A Lady and Gentleman in Black – Rembrandt
Landscape with Obelisk – Flinck
Chez Tortoni – Manet
Self-Portrait – Rembrandt
La Sortie de Pesage – Degas
Cortege aux Environs de Florence – Degas
Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 – Degas
Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 – Degas
Three Mounted Jockeys – Degas
An ancient Chinese gu
A French Imperial Eagle finial
They instead stole a small postage stamp-sized Rembrandt etching, before removing Landscape with Obelisk by Govert Flinck and The Concert, by Johannes Vermeer.
Over the next hour, a total of 13 masterpieces were removed from the museum’s walls and stolen, never to be seen again.
Before leaving the two men returned to check on the security guards asking if they were comfortable. They then broke into the security director’s office and stole the surveillance tapes that documented their entrance to the museum.
In total the robbery lasted 81 minutes. By 2:45am the men had exited the museum through the same side-door through which they’d entered, and were seen fleeing the scene in a hatchback.
The estimated value of the missing artwork was first believed to be in the region of $200 million. However, in the late 2000s various art dealers suggested the haul was actually likely more worth somewhere in the region of $500-$600 million.
The eclectic mix of artwork – ranging from a relatively worthless bronze Chinese gu to Chez Tortoni by French painter Édouard Manet – has continued to puzzle experts and investigator alike.
While some of the art taken is incredibly valuable, the two men passed other, far more valuable works such as those by Raphael, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, leaving them completely undisturbed.
The thieves also never entered the third floor, where Titan’s The Rape of Europa hung, one of the city’s most precious paintings.
The seemingly random selection of art, and the ruthless ways in which they were handled led police to believe the thieves were not experts commissioned to steal specific works.
Corner right: A Lady and Gentleman in Black, by Rembrandt. The painting was also taken in the art heist
The Rembrandt painting’s frame hangs empty since the 1990 robbery. Several suspects have existed, however, no one was ever charged with the crime
What are the world’s biggest art heists?
Theft of the Mona Lisa, Paris- $700million at today’s prices
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911.
The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, eventually took it to Italy, where it was recovered and returned in 1914.
When it was assessed for insurance in the 1960s, the Mona Lisa was valued at $100million – meaning it would be worth around $700million today.
Gardner Museum, Boston – $500million
In March 1990, two thieves stole 13 artworks worth $500million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.
The pair disguised themselves as Boston police officers and left with works of art by Rembrandt and Manet among others.
The crime remains unsolved and last year the museum renewed an offer of $10million to help find the artworks.
Hatton Garden, London – estimates up to £200million
A gang of ageing criminals ransacked 73 deposit boxes at the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit building in London’s jewellery district in 2015.
Disguised as workmen, they abseiled down a lift shaft over the Easter weekend and used a diamond-tipped drill to cut through the vault wall.
The thieves stole gold, silver, diamonds and jewellery and some estimates at the time put the value at up to £200million.
Nazi theft of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – $135million
A painting of his wife by Jewish artist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was stolen by the Nazis in 1941.
It remained in Austria until 2006 when it was returned to the Bloch-Bauer family and sold for what was then a record $135million.
The Scream, Oslo – $120million
Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream was stolen by armed robbers in broad daylight in 2004.
It was recovered by police two years later and one of the thieves died while still at large.
In 2012, another version of the painting was sold in the US for $120million.
Diamond heist, Antwerp – $100million
In 2003, thieves cleared vaults at the Antwerp Diamond Centre during a weekend, with diamonds, gold and jewellery worth over $100million taken.
The thieves got past infrared heat detectors and a lock with millions of possible combinations.
After the alarm was sounded the next morning, the Boston police got on the case, and the FBI joined the search for the paintings too.
In the early days of the investigation, the security guard Abath was a person of interest, because he broke protocol by opening the door for the robbers.
The museum had a strict policy that stated security guards could not open the doors for anyone, including cops and firemen, without first getting permission from a supervisor.
After the heist, Abath went on to lead a quiet life, most recently working as a teacher’s aide. He is now in his early 50s and living in Vermont.
Investigators were not short of suspects at the time of the robbery, however, many died or were killed in the following years, limiting the number of leads that could be thoroughly explored.
The Concert, by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer was also among the artwork stolen, and is considered a rare painting
Mobster Robert Gentile, pictured in 2017, was on the theft suspects list after the wife of his friend Robert Guarante claimed her husband passed the paintings on to him before his death in 2004
It was suspected Boston mobsters belonging to the Irish or the Italian mafia could have been involved.
One suspect was mob boss Whitey Bulger, who was killed in prison in 2018 while serving two life sentences for 11 murders.
From the early 1970s, Bulger headed the Winter Hill Gang, part of the Irish mob. Bulger was also an informant who fed information about other gangs to the FBI.
Charles Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective who appeared in the documentary, long thought Bulger was involved in the crime.
He believed the paintings had been shipped to Ireland in an arms deal benefiting the IRA, because Bulger was an IRA sympathiser.
One of the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Garner museum in Boston. The museum is offering a $10m reward for the return of the paintings
Karen Haas, former acting curator of the Gardner museum, pictured on March 18 1990 stands next to a board documenting the paintings that were stolen
Timeline in the hunt for the stolen art
1903 – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opens to house artwork from the collector
1924 – Stewart Gardner dies and her will stipulated that the arrangement of the artwork should not be altered and no items were to be sold or bought into the collection
1980s – the museum was running low on funds. This financial strain left the museum in poor condition
1982 – FBI uncover a plot by Boston criminals to rob the museum
1988 – An independent security consultant reviewed the museum’s operations in 1988 and determined they were on par with most other museums, but recommended improvements
March 18, 1990 1:20 a.m – thieves enter the museum to steal 13 works of art
2:45 a.m – the thieves leave the museum with their loot
Morning – The next shift of guards arrived and realized something was amiss when they could not establish contact with anyone inside to be let in. They called in a security director who, upon entering the building with his keys, found nobody at the watch desk and called police The police searched the building until they found the guards still tied in the basement.
Because of the museum’s low funds and lack of an insurance policy, the director solicited help from Sotherbys and Christie’s auction houses to post a reward of $1 million within three days.
1994 – museum director Anne Hawley received an anonymous letter from someone who claimed to be attempting to negotiate a return of the artwork. It ultimately falls through
1997 – Reward is increased to $5 million
March 2013- FBI announce significant progress and suggest they have identified the thieves
2015 – FBI stated both thieves were deceased
2017 – Reward increased to $10 million
Hill, who recovered a lot of stolen art that had been exchanged for weapons, said it was possible the Isabella Gardner artworks had suffered the same fate, however, there is no hard evidence to support his claim.
The documentary instead focuses on the Merlino gang, who were part of the Italian mob and operated in Dorchester at a car repair shop run by mobster Carmello Merlino.
The FBI announced significant progress in their investigation in March 2013. They reported ‘with a high degree of confidence’ that they identified the thieves, which they believed were members of a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England.
They also felt the ‘same confidence’ with their belief the artwork was transported to Connecticut and Philadelphia in the years following the theft, with an attempted sale in Philadelphia in 2002.
However, two years later the FBI said both of the suspects had since died. They did not name the men, or say where they were living but expressed disappointment that they could never been brought to justice.
David Turner, one of the last suspects in the theft, was released from prison in 2019, pictured, after being 21 years imprisonment in 1999 on other charges
It is believed the FBI was referring to two members of the Merlino gang.
David Turner, the last known suspect in the heist was jailed in 1999 after a foiled $50 million plan to rob a Loomis-Fargo armored truck at gunpoint.
Aged 52, Turner, who used to be a member of the so-called Merlino gang in the 1980s, denied any link to the Gardner robbery upon his release from prison in 2019.
Instead, the former mobster said he deeply regretted his past actions and said he was going to Disneyland.
Meanwhile another person who was close to the Merlino gang was Robert Guarente, who died from cancer in 2004.
His wife told the FBI that he has previously owned some of the paintings that were taken from the Garner.
She claimed that after his cancer diagnosis he passed on the paintings to his friend Robert Gentile for safekeeping.
Gentile denied the claims. He took two lie detectors tests in 2012, but they were inconclusive.
In 2012 the FBI searched Gentile’s house and found a hidden room under his house that was empty except for a copy of the Boston Herald from the day of the robbery and a piece of paper indexing their worth on the black market.
A sign reads ‘the museum is closed today’ following the robbery in 1990. In total, the artworks are estimated at $500m
No other evidence was found that could tangibly link him to the crime. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison on drug charges.
Meanwhile experts in the documentary argued criminals had an interest in stealing objects that couldn’t be sold.
Former head of art and antique squad of Scotland Yard Dick Ellis explained: ‘If we’re talking iconic works of art from museums and galleries here, the sort of things that can’t be resold through the legal art market, then this is used by the criminals as collateral. That’s how it works.
‘If you are the owner of a house and you decide that you need some investment money, you go to the bank, and they will advance you money against your house,’ he explained.
‘That’s exactly how the black market works,’ he added.
Thief Myles Connor explained how the paintings were used on the cocaine black market, revealing: ‘There was a number of people involved in that business making a buck from it.
Whitey Bulger, pictured, was an IRA sympathiser and member of the Boston Irish mob
‘Say for instance you have a large cocaine shipment, say 20 kilos of cocaine, but you don’t have anything more than $20,000 cash to put down.
‘But you have several million dollars’ worth of stolen art.
‘So you give that art as security. And they hold the art until they’re reimbursed for whatever the value of the cocaine is,’ he said.
The documentary proved to be a fascinating watch for Netflix viewers, with some vowing to solve the mystery.
‘If anyone needs me I’ll be quitting my job to investigate the art heist at the Gardner Museum,’ one said.
‘I really can’t watch a new Netflix documentary without it becoming my latest obsession. Like JonBenèt Ramsey I will solve your murder later but right now I need to find the missing Isabella Stewart Gardner museum paintings,’ another said.
‘Can everyone in America check their attics, basements, garage? We gotta find these paintings,’ one wrote.
‘What am I doing tonight? Oh, nothing. Just single-handedly solving the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston,’ one said.