Art History Lab

Inside the Gardner Museum Heist: History’s Largest Art Theft

The Gardner Museum Heist: An Inside Look at History’s Largest Art Theft

On the night of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. What followed is history’s largest art theft to date with 13 paintings valued at $500 million stolen from the museum’s collection.

The events of that night and those leading up to it have remained shrouded in mystery. This article will provide you with an inside look at the Gardner Museum and the infamous heist that shook the art world.

Background of the Gardner Museum and its Security

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was established by, you guessed it, Isabella Stewart Gardner, an art collector and philanthropist who bequeathed her home and personal art collection upon her death in 1924 to create an art museum. The museum is in a Venetian-style palazzo in Boston’s Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood and houses a collection of priceless paintings, sculptures, furniture, and textiles.

Like most museums, security at the Gardner Museum was tight, but not tight enough. The security measures in place were motion detectors, security guards, and locked doors.

The paintings were not equipped with any alarms or other high-tech security systems. This might have contributed to how the burglars were able to pull off their heist so successfully.

Security Measures and Upgrades at the Museum

After the heist, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum underwent several security upgrades to prevent any similar occurrence from happening again. In 1992, the museum installed motion detectors and motion-sensor video without replacing the security system.

In 2014, the Justice Department launched an investigation into what happened to the paintings and continued to offer a $10 million reward for information that helps them recover the stolen artworks.

The Night of the Gardner Museum Heist

The burglars gained access to the museum by tricking the security personnel. They arrived around 12:30 am and told the night guards that they were the police responding to a call regarding a disturbance.

As soon as the guards let them in, they subdued them, tied them up, and secured them in the basement. The burglars then went ahead and looted the artwork.

Actions of the Security Guards and their Encounter with the Burglars

After the heist, investigators questioned the museum security staff, including the two guards who were working the night shift. It was discovered that they had let the burglars in under the assumption that they were indeed the police responding to a call.

The burglars had managed to con them by impersonating police officers. The guards were later found not guilty of any wrongdoing in the case.

Looting of the Paintings and the Burglars’ Actions inside the Museum

The burglars targeted specific paintings, cutting them from their frames and rolling them up. Among the stolen artworks were “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” by Rembrandt, and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt.

The empty frames still hang in the museum as a reminder of the missing treasures. The burglars also vandalized the museum, breaking display cases, and carving their signatures into the walls.

However, the biggest loss was undoubtedly the stolen artworks. Their value and importance to the cultural heritage and history of art make their loss incalculable.

The Gardner Museum Heist remains unsolved even after more than three decades. Although the FBI has identified the burglars and discovered their whereabouts, they are yet to recover the stolen artworks.

The robbery is one of the most significant in history and serves as a cautionary tale for museums all around the world. Security measures must be updated and improved continually to keep up with evolving threats.


We cannot conclude this article on the Gardner Museum Heist because it remains unsolved, and the stolen artworks are still missing. However, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly important to remember the events of that night and reflect on how we can prevent similar occurrences from happening again.

The loss of these treasures is a tragic reminder that priceless art belongs to all of us and that we must do our best to protect it.

Artworks Stolen During the Gardner Museum Heist

The Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 is infamous for its audacity and the value of artworks stolen. The total value of the stolen objects is estimated to be around $500 million.

Among the rare and valuable objects taken were thirteen works of art, including paintings by Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt, etchings, and ancient Chinese bronzes.

Valuable Artworks Targeted by the Robbers

The Dutch Room was the main target of the burglars, and their sole focus was stealing the paintings. They selected some of the most valuable works of art in the room, which included “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” by Rembrandt, and “Landscape With an Obelisk” by Govert Flinck.

Other paintings taken included “Chez Tortoni” by douard Manet, “La Sortie de Pesage” by Edgar Degas, and three paintings by Matisse.

Selection of Stolen Artworks and Their Significance

The Gardner Museum Heist raised questions as to why only those specific artworks were stolen. The selection of these stolen pieces was not random.

It has been suggested that the choice was made to fulfill the desires of a particular undisclosed collector. The mysterious collector is believed to have had specific knowledge and interest in the artworks taken, and their requests had been passed along to the burglars.

Aside from this theory, the question has also been asked why such an odd combination of artworks was stolen. The selection process was unconventional, as different media and styles were taken, such as a Shang Dynasty Chinese beaker and a finial from the top of an ancient Napatan Bronze Statue.

The Gardner Heist remains one of the most puzzling and intriguing art heists in history.

People of Interest in the Gardner Museum Heist

The Gardner Museum Heist investigation has been a perplexing and lengthy one, with many people being suspected of involvement in the case. One peculiar inclusion in the list of suspects was museum security guard Rick Abath.

Many have questioned whether he was a possible accomplice to the burglars. On the night of the robbery, he was not positioned at his post; instead, he had joined the party held by the night shift team.

Abath was not implicated in the robbery, and ample evidence indicates that he was not involved. The FBI has carried out several investigations into the Gardner Museum Heist, with each focusing on different suspects.

In 1996, Whitey Bulger’s name surfaced when it was discovered that an unidentified man had contacted him to broker a deal for the painting’s return. Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster, had various connections to corrupt police officers and was known to have an interest in art.

Still, he denied any involvement in the Gardner Museum Heist. In 2015, former museum guard Brian McDevitt became a person of interest in the investigation.

He was accused of stealing two valuable prints from the museum and had previous access to the exact areas where the burglars had stolen the art. Still, he has maintained his innocence and claims he had no part in the robbery.


The Gardner Museum Heist remains a fascinating case, with many unanswered questions and unconfirmed suspicions. Debates about who was behind the theft and how they managed to pull it off continue to be debated by art followers and experts.

The significance of the artworks that were stolen has made their recovery a significant priority, but as of today, they are still missing. The Gardner Museum Heist remains an unsolved robbery and a reminder of the importance of preserving and protecting cultural heritage.

The Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 shocked the art world and remains a mystery to this day. Despite years of investigations, the stolen artworks have yet to be recovered, and the case is still considered an open investigation by the FBI.

In this section, we will discuss the current status of the Gardner Museum Heist and the lingering uncertainties and unanswered questions surrounding the case.

Progress and Findings of the FBI Investigations

Since the heist, the FBI has been instrumental in pursuing leads and investigating the robbery. As part of their efforts, they have periodically released statements seeking information from the public that could help solve the case.

They have made significant progress in identifying the perpetrators of the crime and have determined that the burglary was the work of a criminal organization. In 2013, the FBI announced that they had identified the individuals who had carried out the heist.

While they have not released the names of the perpetrators, the FBI claims to have made significant progress in cracking the case. However, despite this revelation, the whereabouts of the stolen artworks remains unknown.

The FBI suspects that the artworks have been in the possession of organized crime syndicates, which have been using them as collateral to facilitate other illegal activities. The FBI has offered a reward of up to $10 million for information that could lead to the recovery of the stolen artworks.

Lack of Definitive Answers and Uncertainties Surrounding the Case

Despite the FBI’s progress in identifying the perpetrators, the Gardner Museum Heist remains an unsolved mystery. To this day, the fate of the artworks and the robbers is unknown.

The lack of definitive answers has only added to the mystique and intrigue of the case, and many theories and speculations persist. One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the case is the reason behind the choice of artworks stolen.

Many have pointed out that the selection of the pieces suggests that the burglars had specific instructions about what to take, leading to speculation about who the intended buyers might be and what their motives were. Another mystery surrounding the case is the identity and fate of the robbers themselves.

While the FBI has identified the perpetrators, their identities remain unknown to the public. Furthermore, it is unclear what happened to them after the heist.

Were they caught and punished? Did they manage to escape, or are they still actively involved in other illegal activities?

These are questions that remain unanswered to this day. In conclusion, the Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 was a crime that rocked the art world and remains an unsolved mystery.

Despite the FBI’s progress in identifying the perpetrators and pursuing leads, the stolen artworks have yet to be recovered, and none of the aspects of the case have been resolved definitively. Nonetheless, the enduring interest and fascination with the case ensure that further developments in this story won’t be long in coming, as people continue to ponder and investigate the circumstances surrounding the greatest art heist in history.

The Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 remains an unsolved mystery, with the stolen artworks valued at $500 million still missing. Despite the FBI’s progress in identifying the perpetrators, the case continues to baffle investigators and art enthusiasts alike.

The selection of specific artworks and the unknown fate of the robbers add to the intrigue and fascination surrounding the heist. This unsolved crime serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting cultural heritage and the ongoing need for improved security measures in museums worldwide.

The Gardner Museum Heist’s enduring legacy leaves us with an unresolved mystery and a heightened awareness of the value and vulnerability of our artistic treasures.

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