Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

13 missing artworks and a $10 million reward: the story of art's biggest unsolved heist

On this day in 1990, two thieves dressed as policeman arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. What happened next continues to baffle investigators

A detail from Johannes Vermeer's 'The Concert', which was stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990
A detail from Johannes Vermeer's 'The Concert', which was stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990

On March 18 1990, the biggest art heist in history took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Thirteen artworks were stolen with a valuation today of $500 million (Dh1.8 billion). Nearly three decades later, the crime remains unsolved and a $10 million reward is still offered by the museum for information leading to the recovery of the works.

Last year, when the reward was extended, president of the museum’s board, Steve Kidder, said: “This reward demonstrates the commitment of the museum and its board of trustees to the recovery of these important works […] We are the only buyer for these works and they belong in their rightful home.”

The story of how the crime unfolded is well known. The thieves arrived at the museum at 1.24am dressed up as police officers, told security staff they were responding to a disturbance, and demanded to be let in.

After handcuffing the security guards, the “cops” then helped themselves to, among other items, Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer’s The Concert, Manet’s Chez Tortoni, as well as five paintings by Edgar Degas. The whole episode took 81 minutes.

There are endless theories about who was responsible for the crime and where these artworks ended up. One of the security guards on duty that night, Richard Abath, was a rock musician who later admitted that he had let the police in because he didn’t want to get arrested and risk missing a Grateful Dead concert. For some, this story has always been suspect and Abath’s role in the crime continues to be debated.

Rembrandt's 'Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee' 
Rembrandt's 'Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee'

The FBI’s Boston office has stated that it believes an East Coast “crime organisation” was behind the heist. Others believe it was the work of the Mafia. There is also a school of thought that the artworks were in the hands of the Irish Republican Army for many years.

The last living person believed to have knowledge of the heist is wheelchair-bound, 82-year-old mobster Robert Gentile, who was released from jail on an unrelated firearms charge last week. Asked about the missing artworks, Gentile replied: “I don’t know anything about that.”

Nevertheless, suspicion still surrounds Gentile. In 2010, the widow of a Boston criminal told police that she had seen her husband handing two of the paintings to Gentile in Maine, while a 2012 raid on Gentile’s house showed that he had been looking at black market art prices for the stolen works.

Perhaps Gentile is the only person still alive who knows the truth. Or perhaps not.

The only thing we know for sure is that the artworks are still missing and the $10 million reward is still up for grabs.

Updated: March 18, 2019 03:02 PM

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