It’s thought the word heist came from the word “hoist,” as in to lift something, in this case to lift goods or money illegally. We’ve already featured one of the biggest British heists, in the Hatton Garden jewel burglary, mostly because it was a job done by old men. Then you’ve got digital heists, such as the Russian Cobalt malware attacks. It’s said in each attack, they’d take around $12 million from a bank, but they did this at around 100 banks.
You could call it the world’s biggest heist, but it wasn’t a one-time job, and anyway, stealing via computer isn’t as exciting as walking through the backdoor. While French art thief Stéphane Breitwieser stole $1.4 billion dollars’ worth of art around 20 years ago, he did it over a long period of time, unlike the thieves we’ll talk about today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Who was behind the half-billion-dollar heist.
So, if we don’t count cyber-heists and multiple thefts that occurred by one person or team over a long period of time, we could say that the world’s biggest heist is the focus of the show we’ll talk about today. Ok, so some dude named Colonel Blood almost got away with stealing the Crown Jewels of the English monarchy in the 1600s, but he didn’t get away with it. He even dropped the Sceptre of the Cross as he tried to escape, valued today at around $550 million.
The entire Crown Jewels are said to be worth somewhere between 4 and 7 billion dollars in today’s money, so we could say that that robbery was the world’s biggest, albeit a short-lived one. We also don’t know what jewels he got and how much has been added to them since. Blood was caught on the way out, not sitting at home fondling his jewels.
Ok, now that we we’ve told you that, we can probably say with confidence that the biggest ever heist known to mankind was the Boston Museum heist that took place at the city’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990. Unlike the Hatton Garden Heist, we can’t really go into depth about what happened because it remains a bit of a mystery and no one has ever been caught. These thieves could be balling it in their mansions somewhere on a tropical island, enjoying their bounty. If they could sell the bounty, that is.
So, what did they do?
On the night of the robbery, two men disguised as policemen, walked up to the security guard at the museum and told him they had been told to check-up on a disturbance that had been reported. The guard, Richard Abath, a 23-year old who had dreams of becoming a rock star, let them in. He was taped up and the thieves got to work stealing some of the greatest works of art that have ever been created. Of the time, Abath later said, “I was just this hippie guy who wasn’t hurting anything, wasn’t on anybody’s radar, and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”
What’s strange about the case is that police have a video in which the night before Abath opens the door for an unidentified man. Police think this could have been a rehearsal. The question is, did Abath let the same guys in twice and not have anything to do with it? “I totally get it. I understand how suspicious it all is,” Abath said in an interview to the press in 2013. But he said he wasn’t involved. “I know I wasn’t supposed to let strangers into the museum after hours, but no one told me what to do if the police showed up saying they were there to investigate a disturbance.”
So, what happened when these thieves got inside?
Well, they stole 13 famous artworks. The most missed of the paintings is arguably the 1633 painting by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. This is called “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.” It’s the artist’s only seascape and it is thought to be worth around $100 million. But a painting with an even higher value that was taken was Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert”, said to be worth $200 million.
Other great works included “La Sortie de Pesage” by Edgar Degas and “Landscape with Obelisk” by Govert Flinck, as well as another two Rembrandts. The thieves might have affected some of the paintings value, however. Some of them were on permanent display and so couldn’t just be taken down like a picture from your wall. The thieves had to cut some of the paintings from their frames, taking something away from the original. Still today those empty frames stand as a reminder of the heist.
The FBI has never even been close to finding those who took the paintings, even though there is a $10 million reward if anyone can provide information to the whereabouts of the masterpieces. It’s thought the paintings probably made their way to Connecticut or Philadelphia, but right now police really have no idea where they are.
But can you even sell a painting that is so hot, who the hell would buy it?
According to the author Stephen Kurkjian, who wrote the book “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist”, the paintings were just too valuable to be sold on. He believes no collector would buy such works and that they were stolen for some other purpose. What purpose? That’s the billion-dollar question.
There may be hope, and that comes in the form of a former mobster who was a convicted murderer, among his many other crimes. This 81-year old named Robert Gentile was secretly taped by the FBI saying that he had two of the paintings from the heist. He was jailed for the sale of guns to a murderer, and never said anything to police about the paintings. But why was the FBI secretly bugging him? Because, after going through his home in 2012, they found a list of all the paintings written by his hand, as well as what they were probably worth. And guess what, the FBI also found a couple of police uniforms at his house.
While that sounds promising, art investigator Arthur Brand, a man who has been called “The Indiana Jones of the Art World”, said in 2017 that the works were no doubt in Ireland. His investigation led him to the Irish Republican Army.
The robbery was also linked to mob associate Carmello Merlino, who police say had talked about the paintings. He was arrested for robbing an armoured car depot and then went and died in 2005. So, he’s not much use anymore. It’s thought his associates George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio could have been the robbers. The former died some time ago from a drug overdose and the latter was found full of bullet holes a few years back. Such is the life of crime, eh?
As it was in Boston, the FBI thought that if James “Whitey” Bulger wasn’t directly involved, then he must have known something about it. If he does, he hasn’t said anything. Bulger is now 88 and serving time for 11 murders. As for other mobsters, there’s a loose theory that Mafia capo Vincent Ferrara might have hired associate Robert Donati to steal the paintings to use as leverage to get him out of prison. Again, it’s just a weak theory.
Could it really have been Abath; an inside job? Could the hippy who often rolled into work stoned and drunk have gotten rid of those masterpieces? If so, the FBI has never been able to find anything, and no doubt Abath has been watched and recorded. The FBI did once tell him, “You know, we’ve never been able to eliminate you as a suspect.” It is a bit weird that Abath let some stranger in the night before, but you never know, it could have been his dealer.
Another suspect is Brian McDevitt, a screenwriter who had once tried to rob the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York. He had planned to knock out the security guard, tie him up with duct tape, and cut paintings from their frames. Hmm, sound similar? Doesn’t matter anyway, he also died young.
So, where do you think the paintings are, and who do you think could have taken them? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video called What was it like to be jailed at Alcatraz?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!