Isabella Stewart Gardner was an heiress and the wife of a rich man. And so she went shopping, buying an eclectic but extravagant collection of artwork on sprees through Europe in the early 20th century. Among her treasures were a Vermeer ("The Concert") and a Rembrandt ("Storm on the Sea of Galilee"), two certified masterpieces. When she died in 1924, Gardner stipulated that the small but exquisite museum in Boston she had built to house her treasures should have nothing new added to it; nor should any of the art be repositioned. Both rules were violated on March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as Boston cops waltzed into the museum after 1 a.m., tied up the guards, shut off the alarm system and took off with the Vermeer, the Rembrandt and several less valuable pieces. The police at one point estimated the value of the stolen goods at $300 million. It is still listed as the biggest American art robbery on the FBI's website. That's because nothing has been recovered. In the 17 years since the theft, there may have been one tantalizing glimpse of the Rembrandt when unknown men brought a Boston Herald reporter to a warehouse where he saw what he believed was the "Sea of Galilee." But otherwise, the fear is that the thieves grabbed what they could, sometimes crudely, and may now not know what to do with their haul. The Vermeer, one of only 32 known works by the artist in existence, may be worth at least $70 million, and so beautifully famous that it is unsellable on the open market. So the greatest art heist in American history may have been a botch, a tragedy so terrible that the thieves may have to destroy the very treasures they stole in order to conceal their guilt.
From the Archive:
A Boston Theft Reflects