The Gardner Heist

Obsessed with the unsolved 1990 heist? I wrote up some advice for people who’re planning to visit the museum and are interested in the case:

If you haven’t read the book here’s some background information; The Gardner Heist, also known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, is a captivating art theft that took place in the early hours of March 18, 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts. Two men disguised as police officers snuck into the museum and executed a heist, stealing thirteen very important works of art with an estimated value of over $500 million. The stolen masterpieces included paintings by renowned artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet. Despite extensive investigations the stolen art remains missing, and the identities of the thieves remain a mystery, leaving the art world and authorities baffled and intrigued by one of the most impressive art thefts in history.

–Start on the ground floor. Imagine it to be March 18, 1990, at about two in the morning. The room would be dark and shadowy. A few revelers would be out on the street, stumbling their way home. Some bats might be skittering through the museum’s galleries.

Look at this theft schematic from The Boston Magazine to get a sense of how exactly the thieves moved through the building. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, follow the room-by-room movements of the thieves.

–Visit the Dutch Room. Stare into the silk wallpaper behind the empty frames. Wonder about the whereabouts of the paintings. Maybe bring John Updike’s poem “Stolen” and read it quietly to yourself.

The Rembrandt self-portrait stolen from the musuem

–Check out the wooden cabinet near the door to the Dutch Room. Note the tiny holes on the side of the cabinet, right next to the door frame. They come from the screws that once secured the small artwork to the cabinet, and in many ways, they’re all that’s left of the Rembrandt self-portrait.

–Dwell on the mysteries of the case by visiting the Short Gallery. Ask yourself some of the questions that continue to haunt investigators today: Why did the thieves spend over an hour in the museum but only steal 13 items? Why did the crooks steal knickknacks like the finial from the top of the flag pole but not the nearby Michelangelo? Why did the two men never visit the third floor where the Titian hangs in all of its splendor?

Before you leave, stop in the gift shop. Notice that the museum doesn’t sell my book, The Gardner Heist, or any other book or movie, or artwork devoted to the theft. The museum treats the caper very seriously–they don’t want to be seen as commercializing their tragic loss. And that’s a good thing.

Remember that the Gardner is an intimate, powerful museum, a space devoted to the enjoyment of art. Don’t focus only on the heist; enjoy the other artwork.

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