Monday, March 14, 2022

Gardner Museum Heist ~ 1990


This month marks the 32nd anniversary of the unsolved theft of thirteen works of art from the historic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

The empty frames still hang on the museum’s walls as a reminder of the loss. The thieves cut the canvases from these frames during their night of artistic looting.

Thanks to the guards’ testimony and the museum’s infrared motion detectors, law enforcement officials developed a timeline of the events. Here’s what happened on March 18, 1990.


The Timeline


1:20 a.m. ~ Two men, disguised as police officers, ring the buzzer on the museum’s side door. Using the intercom, they tell the guard that they are responding to a disturbance.


1:24 a.m. ~ The guard, Rick Abath, isn’t aware of a disturbance but St. Patrick’s Day revelers are still in the area. Believing the men to be police officers, he lets them in. Randy Hestand, the second guard, returns to the security desk.


The supposed police officers handcuff both guards, cover their eyes and mouths with duct tape, escort them to the basement, then handcuff them to a steam pipe and a workbench. The thieves threaten the guards and promise a reward “in about a year” if they keep quiet.

Police Sketches of Thieves

1:48 a.m. ~ The thieves enter the Dutch Room on the second floor where they smash the devices that beep when visitors get too close to a painting. They throw selected paintings to the floor to break their glass frames then cut the canvases from their stretchers.


1:51 a.m. ~ One thief enters the Short Gallery on the second floor. The second thief soon joins him. They remove a few screws from a frame displaying a Napoleonic flag but give up.


The men steal a painting from the Blue Room on the first floor, but the motion detectors in this room only recorded the movements of one of the guards who patrolled the room before the thieves entered the museum.


The thieves return to the basement to check on the guards then go to the “security director’s office where they took the video cassettes that recorded their entrance on the closed-circuit cameras, and the data print-outs from the motion detecting equipment. The movement data was still captured on a hard drive, which remained untouched” (Boser).


2:40 a.m. and 2:45 a.m. ~ The side entrance door is opened twice, presumably making two trips to remove the stolen art.


The robbery isn’t discovered until the morning guards arrived for their shift.


The Stolen Art


The thirteen stolen works of art were valued at $200 million at the time of the robbery and are estimated to be worth $600 million today. Here’s the list:


Three Rembrandts: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape; A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a self-portrait etching about the size of a postage stamp.

Landscape with Obelisk, once believed to be a Rembrandt but now attributed to Govert Flinck, one of Rembrandt’s students.


Vermeer’s The Concert, believed to be the most valuable stolen object in the world.

Chez Tortoni by French painter Édouard Manet.

Five sketches by Degas.

Program for an artistic soiree 1

A French Imperial Eagle finial from the corner of the Napoleonic flag (the one with the partially unscrewed frame).

A Chinese gu (or ku)—a bronze vessel used to serve wine—dating to the 12
th century’s Shang Dynasty.

Authorities remain puzzled by what the thieves didn’t take.


The most valuable painting in Boston, Titian’s The Rape of Europa, hangs in the museum’s third floor. Works by Raphael, Botticelli, and Michelangelo were also ignored.


Despite a huge reward, multiple tips, and diligent investigations, the thieves’ identities and the whereabouts of the stolen art remain a mystery.




On March 3rd—less than two weeks ago—the Smithsonian Magazine website posted an article titled, “A Tantalizing Clue Emerges in the Unsolved Gardner Museum Art Heist” and written by Daily Correspondent Nora McGreevy.


The article’s subtitle reads: “Boston police officers tell local media that the 1991 murder of Jimmy Marks might be linked to modern history’s biggest art heist.”


According to the article, Marks, a known career criminal, “was friendly with a fellow mafia man, the late Robert ‘Bobby’ Gaurente,” a prime suspect in the theft who authorities believe transported “some of the stolen paintings from Boston to Connecticut and eventually Philadelphia.”


An anonymous tipster said that Marks bragged about hiding a few of the paintings a few days before he was shot—twice—in the back of the head. His murder hasn’t been solved, but in 2015 Gaurente’s widow told investigators that her husband had killed Marks.


Perhaps authorities are a step or two closer to solving the Gardner Museum mystery and finding the missing art. Or maybe the only ones who hold the answer to the mystery are no longer alive to tell it. <<cue spooky music>>


For a fictional solution to the theft, you might enjoy reading A Dream Within a Dream by Melissa Kosci and Mike Nappa (Revell).


This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, a four-part documentary series, is available on Netflix.



Resource ~ Boser, Ulrich (2009). The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft. New York: HarperCollins.

Photo Credits

All images are in the public domain except for the Napoleonic Flag finial and the Chinese gu. These two images are "fair use" as they "illustrate the subject in question" (Wikipedia).

Johnnie Alexander imagines inspiring stories in multiple genres. Where Treasure Hides, her debut novel, is a CBA bestseller and has been translated into Dutch and Norwegian.

A fan of classic movies, stacks of books, and road trips, she shares a life of quiet adventure with Griff, her happy-go-lucky collie, and Rugby, her raccoon-treeing papillon. Visit her at


  1. Thanks for posting! Why bother to steal such valuable items and then not display them somehow? I mean, unless they're in a secret room or closet where the perpetrator can visit and look at the loot. So interesting!

    1. Hi, Connie. My guess is that you're on the right track. Someone, somewhere, can see these paintings anytime they wish and exult in their anonymous notoriety! I hadn't planned on writing about this theft until later in the year, but when I came across the Smithsonian article about the murder of Jimmy Marks, it seemed now was the time.