The Biggest Unsolved Art Heist In Modern History

In March 1990, thieves disguised as cops broke into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole $500 million worth of precious artworks—which remain missing today.

Art heists have occurred all throughout history. Some were more infamous, others took years for authorities to crack, and certain cases remain unsolved. For the most part, authorities have cracked many of the world’s greatest art heists and recovered works with success—albeit much later than desired. However, one heist in modern history has continued to baffle experts and authorities for more than three decades. 

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On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised themselves as cops and tricked two night shift security guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to let them in. They then proceeded to gag and bind the guards in charge, before disabling security cameras, as per The Smithsonian

Inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's main lobby
Inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s main lobby/Photo by Amoran002 via Wikimedia Commons

The thieves then made rounds through the museum and grabbed valuable pieces from renowned artists. The robbers took 13 paintings in total, which experts estimate cost $500 million today. Sadly, the precious masterpieces remain missing, their empty gilded frames hanging on the museum’s walls as a reminder of the tremendous loss. 

The Missing Motive

Among the stolen works were paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet. A particularly valuable work was Vermeer’s “The Concert,” which is just one of 34 surviving paintings today, according to ArtNews. Five sketches from Degas, Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Manet’s “Chez Tortoni,” and Govaert Flinck’s “Landscape With Obelisk” were also among the stolen works. 

Vermeer's "The Concert"
Vermeer’s “The Concert”/Photo from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website

On top of this, the thieves stole an ancient Chinese bronze vessel and a bronze eagle ornament from a silk flag used in Napoleon’s First Regiment of Imperial Guard, as per The Independent.  Experts think that the thieves tried stealing the flag itself, but were unsuccessful, and thus resorted to grabbing the ornament. 

Rembrandt's "Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee"
Rembrandt’s “Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”/Photo from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website

There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the robbers’ choices. While the paintings they stole were certainly valuable, they also left the most expensive piece in the museum untouched. That would be Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” which hung in the museum’s third floor gallery. 

Manet's "Chez Tortoni"
Manet’s “Chez Tortoni”/Photo from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website

Robert Poole of Smithsonian Magazine stated that the nature of the theft has perplexed experts and journalists for years. He wrote: “What continues to perplex those investigating the Gardner mystery is that no single motive or pattern seems to emerge from the thousands of pages of evidence gathered over the past 15 years. Were the works taken for love, money, ransom, glory, barter or for some tangled combination of them all?”

Frames of the missing artworks
Frames of the missing artworks/Photo by Sean Dungan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website

A Long List of Suspects 

The FBI and the museum have been working side by side to paint a clearer picture of what happened on the night of March 18. Though they’ve narrowed down the long list of suspects considerably, they’ve reached no definite conclusion as to who stole the paintings and where the works are now. 

The thieves took two different trips to their car after stealing the works. Police didn’t arrive at the crime scene until other security personnel found the two gagged guards trapped in the museum basement the following morning. 

The list of motion alarms from the theft
The list of motion alarms from the theft/Photo by Sean Dungan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website

The thieves’ success was due in part to the museum’s faulty security system. When the institution’s founder, wealthy art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, passed away, the museum quickly fell into disrepair. According to The Smithsonian, the institution’s deteriorating security became common knowledge to criminal circles. As such, the Boston museum was what some may call a “sitting duck.”

Experts and authorities suspect that the force behind the robbery was either the Irish mob or Italian mafia—crime groups with a strong influence at the time. A report by The Independent stated that the criminals could have used the artworks to bargain shorter imprisonment sentences or bails. Such was the case of Myles Connor, a New England criminal and art thief who stole a Rembrandt in 1975 to negotiate a lighter prison sentence. 

A Long List Of Suspects

In 2013, the FBI stated that they had found the two thieves who stole the works, or at least the primary suspects behind the case. These were George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, associates of the deceased mobster Carmello Merlino, as per The Smithsonian. Both resembled the police sketches of the perpetrators, but they died within a year of the heist. Investigators say the thieves tried to sell the works on the black market in 2002. However, traces of the pieces disappeared after the aforementioned sale attempt. 

Late mobster Bobby Guarente is one of the case's primary suspects
Late mobster Bobby Guarente is one of the case’s primary suspects/Photo from IMDb

Other mobsters that authorities have linked to the theft are Robert Gentile and Bobby Guarente. In 2010, Elen, the wife (now widow) of Guarente claimed that her husband gave two stolen Gardner artworks to Gentile over lunch at Portland, Maine. Though authorities didn’t find the works themselves, they did uncover a list of the stolen items and their prices, according to Boston 25

So Close, Yet So Far

In 2022, the museum got another significant lead from a tipster, according to its chief of security, Anthony Amore. This concerned the murder of notorious criminal Jimmy Marks. In February 1991, nearly a year after the heist, Marks was fatally shot in a “classic mob-style hit” while trying to enter his apartment. Marks was an associate of Bobby Guarente, and his homicide remains unsolved. However, a tip stated that the man had been bragging about possessing the stolen artworks and hiding them. 

Jimmy Marks, another suspect in the case, was shot in his apartment eleven months after the heist
Jimmy Marks, another suspect in the case, was shot in his apartment eleven months after the heist/Photo by Maxim Hopman via Unsplash

In the 2010 interview, Elen told Amore and FBI Agent Geoff Kelly that her husband killed Marks. No one knows why Guarente wanted Marks dead, but the precision of his murder suggests that it was more than a random act of street violence, as per Boston 25. 

“I would say it’s not a coincidence,” explained Lynn Police Captain Mark O’Toole to Boston 25. “Mr. Marks either had some knowledge or was somehow a participant in that crime that resulted in him being marked for assassination.” 

As many of the primary suspects have died, conclusions are difficult to draw. Amore told The Independent that in cases like this, even if the main players are deceased, suspects behind the crime may still be around. 

“There’s always the possibility that the paintings are hidden, and a person doesn’t realize what they have, or they don’t understand what is up in their attic and a family member maybe left it, that sort of thing,” he continued. 

A Hefty Reward for Answers

In 1990, the museum offered a $1 million reward for answers concerning the theft. The amount then increased to $5 million seven years later. At present, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering an impressive $10 million to anyone who has “information leading directly to the safe return of the stolen works.” 

“The 1990 theft of 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection remains unsolved, although the Museum’s commitment to resolving the crime has never diminished since its occurrence 31 years ago,” the museum’s official website wrote. “The Museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art.”

Banner photo by Sean Dungan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website.

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