The Biggest Art Heist in US History – $500 Million

art museum
It's the early morning hours on the day after St. Patrick's Day, but celebrations are still going strong in the city of Boston. Two police officers are standing outside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the former home of a wealthy art collector named the art museum.

This was the Biggest Art Theft in American History

It’s the early morning hours on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, but celebrations are still going strong in the city of Boston. Two police officers are standing outside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the former home of a wealthy art collector named the art museum.

The perfect Disguise

The police explain that they’re here because of a disturbance call due to the ongoing holiday hooliganism outside and that they need to check the museum out. The two security guards on duty, Rick Abath and Randy Hestand, who are both in their early twenties and somewhat inexperienced, allow the officers to come inside. 

The museum security guards have no idea, but the greatest art heist in modern history has just been set in motion.

Once inside, one of the officers says that Abath looks familiar and there may be a warrant out for his arrest. He asks the young guard to come out from behind the security desk, which is where the only panic button is located. Abath cooperates, and he’s soon shoved against a wall and handcuffed.

The other guard, Hestand, who was on foot patrol, now returns to the front desk, only to be immediately forced against a wall by the other police officer, who promptly handcuffs him as well. With both Hestand and Abath subdued, one of the police officers announces, “Gentlemen, this is a robbery.”

art theft

Executing the Heist

The guards are told that if they don’t give them any trouble, they’ll be fine, after which the thieves then proceed to move them to the basement. Once down there, the thieves wrap duct tape around the head and eyes of the guards and take their wallets, telling them that they now know where the guards live and warning them to say nothing to the actual police. If they hold their tongues, then in about a year, they’ll get a reward for their cooperation.

There’s nobody else in the building, and the thieves know that no other guards would be coming until the shift change later in the morning, but they still lay low for a few minutes just in case the real police had somehow been alerted. Once they’re confident that nobody is coming, they move into action – they now have the run of the entire building.

Choosing the Art Pieces

First, the thieves move to the second floor and pull Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black off the wall. They smash the priceless paintings on the floor, shattering the glass of their frames, and cut the paintings out with a knife. They also pull a Rembrandt self-portrait off the wall, but this piece of work is on wood and likely ends up being too cumbersome to transport for the thieves. Instead, they take a self-portrait by Rembrandt as a young man that is the size of a postage stamp that hangs right underneath the larger painting.

Next, the thieves cut out Landscape with Obelisk by Rembrandt’s pupil Govert Flinck as well as Vermeer’s The Concert from their frames. They also steal a Chinese gu – a ritual bronze vessel dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties for good measure. One of the thieves continues to secure the stolen artwork, moving the items to a side door in preparation for loading their spoils into a hatchback the duo has parked on the side of the museum. Meanwhile, the second moves to a nearby hallway and begins to work on the screws holding an original Napoleonic flag in place in its display. However, the housing proves to be too hard to open, so instead of stealing the entire flag, they settle for yanking off the Eagle finial sitting atop the flagpole.

art pieces

The thieves then turn their attention to works of art and cut five sketches by French artist Edgar Degas out of their frames. Finally, the thieves move to a room on the first floor where they snag Chez Tortoni by French artist Edouard Manet. Before they leave the building, though, the two thieves move to the security office and begin to pull out all the video cassettes onto which the museum’s cameras are recording. In 1990 very few establishments had off-site recording capabilities, and digital recording was still several years away.

The thieves also take print-outs from the motion detectors, which have tracked every movement made by the thieves while they were inside the building. However, the two are unaware that the motion detection system also records directly onto a computer hard drive and leave behind one of the few clues police will have to work with.

Right before leaving, the two go back down to the basement and check in on the guards, adjusting their restraints so they’re more comfortable. It’s 2:45 when the two leave the building, driving away in a car worth approximately .01% of the value of the items it is now carrying.

A Big Shock Awaiting

In the morning, the next shift of guards buzzes to be let in. When there is no answer, they assume the guards inside have fallen asleep and contact their supervisor, who arrives on-scene with a key to the museum. Once inside, the two guards and their supervisor are shocked to discover the security desk abandoned. Even more shocking, though, is the discovery of the missing artwork. The police are immediately contacted, and in a sweep of the building, they finally find Abath and Hestand tied up in the basement.

As investigators begin to work the case, it’s immediately apparent that this is one of the greatest art heists in history. The initial value is estimated at around $200 million, though by the year 2000, the value of the artwork had increased to half a billion dollars – and possibly even more. Not bad for what ended up being less than an hour and a half of work for the thieves.

museum

The Spoils of the Heist

Thirteen pieces of art were stolen in all, two of which are physical artifacts – the ancient Chinese gu and the French Imperial Eagle finial, which once adorned one of Napoleon’s flags. Of the paintings, Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee is valued at about $100 million, but the most valuable of all is The Concert, by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, which is valued today at approximately $250 million. 

Upon examining what was stolen and how, the police have their first tip: this duo, whoever they are, clearly knew little about art. The thieves doubtlessly inflicted considerable damage on the artworks they stole by smashing their frames on the ground and then cutting them out before likely rolling them up for easy transport. However, even more perplexing is the theft of the Degas sketches, which are altogether only worth about $100,000, a lot of money, but very little when compared to the other pieces that were stolen.

What makes it most clear the duo are not professional art thieves is that they either completely ignored or were unaware of the value of other of the museum’s pieces. The thieves ignored original works by Raphael, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. The pair also seemed unaware that Tiziano Vecelli’s The Rape of Europa, located on the third floor of the museum, was considered the most valuable painting in the entire city.

Whoever these two were, they were likely not hired by professional art collectors and certainly had little knowledge of art themselves.

Investigations Begin

Within days, a reward of $1 million was offered for any information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork. But despite an outpouring of tips, the police had little to go on. The FBI quickly took control of the case, seeing as precious artwork like this would inevitably be crossing state lines, making it a federal crime. Some fingerprints were found at the scene, but investigators could not differentiate between museum employees and the thieves.

One of the first suspects in the case was security guard Rick Abath himself, who came under intense scrutiny due to his unusual behavior on the night of the theft. While on patrol inside the museum, Abath had opened and then shut a side door. He claimed that he did this to test that the door was locking properly and that he often did this. However, suppose he had been doing this regularly. In that case, the motion detectors should have made a record of it, and according to one of Abath’s co-workers, a supervisor would have put a stop to it immediately.

Investigators believed that Abath’s opening and closing of the door might have been his way of signaling that the coast was clear to the duo. Also casting suspicion on Abath is that the motion detector equipment did not record any movement inside the room that housed Chez Tortoni, one of the stolen paintings. The only activity recorded in that room was Abath’s own before the heist, leading some to believe that Abath may have removed the painting earlier in the night while his partner sat at the security desk, unaware.

Persuing Other Leads

Despite these suspicions, the FBI ultimately concluded that the two security guards were too incompetent to have pulled the heist off.

Next on the list of suspects was Whitey Bulger, the infamous Boston crime boss. A police informant at the time, Bulger was incensed when he learned about the heist, though not because he was a lover of great works of art. The robbery had happened on his turf, which meant he felt he was due a cut of the profits. Bulger even attempted to discover the identity of the thieves himself, so he could collect what he felt was due to him. Who can say if he would have then informed on the thieves, getting a cut of the official reward as well?

art theft

The Case Goes Cold

Investigators believed, though, that even if Bulger was unaware of who perpetrated the heist, elements of his criminal network were not. The Irish Republican Army was suspected of being involved due to their history of pulling off art heists and holding the artwork ransom. Furthermore, before the theft, fire alarms went off in several museum rooms, despite there being no sign of fire or smoke. This was a calling card of the IRA in previous heists and strongly hinted that whoever the thieves were, they may have been working for either the IRA or the rival Ulster Volunteer Force – both of which had agents in Boston that police were aware of.

Nine years before the robbery, conman Brian McDevitt had attempted to rob a Rembrandt from The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York. McDevitt appeared to fit the description of one of the thieves, and as a known art thief, he quickly became a suspect in the case. McDevitt denied any involvement and refused to take a polygraph test – though when police compared his fingerprints to those found at the scene, they were unable to make a match.

Though no suspect was ever publically identified as either of the two culprits, information would eventually come to light that gangster Robert Guarente had at one point owned at least some of the paintings. In 2010, his widow told the FBI that Guarente had owned some of the paintings, but he had given them to another gangster, Robert Gentile, after Guarente was diagnosed with cancer. Gentile was indicted on drug charges in 2012 as the FBI attempted to pressure him on the Gardner theft, and a polygraph test indicated that he was lying when he claimed not to know anything about the robbery or the location of the art.

The Case Still Remains Unsolved

Shortly after his arrest, the FBI raided Gentile’s home and discovered a copy of a newspaper from March 1990 reporting on the theft, along with a shopping list of sorts indicating what each stolen artwork might sell for on the black market. Agents also discovered a small ditch hidden under a false floor in his backyard shed, though it was empty. Gentile’s son told the FBI that a few years ago, the ditch had accidentally flooded, and his father had been furious about the damage done to whatever he was storing there. Questioned about the ditch, Gentile said he couldn’t remember what had been in there but that it was probably some small motors.

Gentile went to jail for 30 months and was offered a reduced, or possibly discarded sentence if he gave up the stolen artwork, but he never took the FBI up on the deal.

Today the FBI is pretty confident of the identity of the two thieves, and even though both are now probably deceased, the agency has refused to identify them, likely to protect ongoing sources inside the criminal underworld. It is thought that the paintings may have been moved to Connecticut after they were stolen and that an attempt at selling them was made in 2002 in Philadelphia. After this, the trail goes cold. To this day, none of the stolen artwork has been recovered, and the FBI is still seeking tips from the public on where they might be. Empty frames still hang in the museum where the great works once were, and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum continues to offer a ten million dollar reward for anyone who can provide information that leads to the recovery of the lost art.