Vermeer Thefts: 1990 - The Concert

At 1:24 a.m. of March 18, 1990, two thieves stole thirteen works of art from the Italianate mansion Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, including Vermeer's mid-career masterpiece, The Concert.

Police Identikit of the Boston Gardner thieves
Police Identikit of the Gardner thieves

At the time, one of the two museum guards was sitting behind the main security desk, the other guard was elsewhere. The thieves, disguised as Boston policemen and sporting false moustaches, buzzed the museum's side-entrance door and ordered, "Police! Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard." When the door was opened without question one of the fake policemen demanded identification saying they had a warrant for the young guard. Once arrived at the main security desk, one of the thieves said "You look familiar...I think we have a default warrant out for you." The guard stepped out from behind his chest-high front desk, where he had access to the only alarm button in the museum to alert the police, and handed him his driver's license and student ID. He was promptly handcuffed. When the guard protested that he had never been arrested, the thief replied, ''You're not being arrested, this is a robbery. Don't give us any problems, and you won't get hurt." ''Don't worry," the younger guard responded, ''they don't pay me enough to get hurt."1

Within a few minutes both guards were bound with duct tape, brought to the museum's basement and taped to pipes 100 feet from each other.

The art sleuth Charley Hill, who had solved various clamorous art thefts and had personally recovered Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, said he believed the thieves may have chosen St Patrick's Day to stage the heist counting on celebrations which are particularly noisy in an Irish city like Boston.

In a Boston Globe interview made years after the crime, the guard who let the thieves in furnished many details about the evening that had not previously come to light exposing how unprotected the museum was at the time. Both guards were inexperienced. They were often bored since had little to do except making rounds throughout the four-story building and manning the main security desk equipped with four video monitors. One of the guards was a student who played with his rock band until midnight when his shift at the museum began. He admitted that he occasionally smoked marijuana before assuming duty at the Gardner and had invited four friends into the museum for some Christmas season cheer. They sat around getting drunk on wine and appreciating the artwork, he recalled. Occasionally, the guards had made a game of trying to complete their rounds without setting off a single motion detector. It was something to do. The guards later lamented they had been undertrained and had not been instructed what to do if policemen requested to enter the museum.

In all, the thieves spent an hour and twenty-one minutes moving through the dimly lit galleries of the museum which had been built by Mrs. Jack Gardner at the turn of the century in order to house her private art collection and share it with the public. The Gardner galleries were protected with motion detectors that sent a silent alert to a computer system located in a small room behind the main security desk. Although the thieves removed the videotape from the recorder that had captured their images at the side door and in the building, they did not realize their tracks had been captured on the computer's hard drive. Once the guards had been immobilized, the thieves proceeded upstairs to the Dutch room and pulled Rembrandt's Self-Portrait off the wall but were unable to remove the wooden panel out of the heavy frame. The Vermeer and the Rembrandt were prime targets, but in all, 13 works of art, estimated to be valued at a total of $500 million were carried away. Items taken included a Manet, 5 drawings by Degas, 3 Rembrandts. When they had gotten what they wanted, they made two trips to their car with the loot and vanished into the wet night.

Although the thieves had demonstrated considerable audacity, they were not professionals. Some of the paintings were clumsily torn from their frames leaving broken glass and shreds of canvas on the floor; and not all the objects they took were the most valuable. More over, they had lost much time attempting to remove a Napoleonic banner hanging above the entry to the Tapestry Room of relatively little value.

The next morning, the security guard who came to relieve the two night guards, discovered that the museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

Until today, the case represents the largest property crime in U.S. history.

Statement from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after the Theft

March 13, 2005
Text of a statement released Sunday, March, 13, 2005:

During the night of March 18, 1990, thieves dressed as Boston Police Officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 rare art objects. On the fifteenth anniversary of their loss, the Gardner Museum calls for information leading to their return and asks for safe storage conditions to protect the art.

Anne Hawley, director of the Gardner Museum, affirmed: "We remain confident that these rare and important treasures will be returned to the Gardner Museum and enjoyed again by the general public. These works have the power to inspire thinking and creativity, two processes essential to a civil society. Isabella Stewart Gardner, this museum's founder, understood that when she left them ‘for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.'"

For the first time, Hawley addressed a plea to a past promising lead. "On the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the theft, I call out to an important person to us. Years ago, I received a lead from a sincere individual giving me information that was comforting and genuine. The person clearly was concerned about the stolen art and knew its condition. We acted in good faith and complied with the first request. I'm very much hoping that this person will contact me again by writing or calling, or through our Security Director. Contact information is available on our website gardnermuseum.org/information/contact.asp. I assure complete confidentiality."

Hawley advised whoever is holding the stolen art that in order to protect the artworks, they must be stored in conditions that do not allow for swings in temperature and humidity – ideally at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity.

A reward of $5 million is offered for information leading to the return of the works of art in good condition. Please contact the Museum's Director of Security at 617.278.5114 or the Federal Bureau of Investigation at 617.742.5533. Images of the art are available at gardnermuseum.org/information/theft.asp.

"Whitey" Bolger
"Whitey" Bolger
The Boston police soon came to suspect James "Whitey" Bulger, a ruthless Boston mob boss who had spent years on the FBI most wanted list. Hill believed that even if Bulger did not order the heist himself, he probably took control of the loot soon after. It is possible that the most valuable works were not intended to be ransomed--that was be too risky--- but as barter to get better prison conditions or even a free pass out of jail if Bulger was eventually arrested. Some investigators have suggested the paintings may have been looked after by allies in the IRS or local criminals who owe a debt to Bugler.

In April 1994, the museum received an anonymous letter in which writer claimed he could mediate the return of the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million and immunity for himself, the thieves and those who held the paintings. The museum turned the letter over to the FBI. The writer said the paintings were being stored in archival conditions, and had not yet been sold but that the paintings were being held in a country where a buyer could claim legal ownership. After a coded signal to the writer was given through the Boston Globe newspaper, the museum received a second letter. If the writer decided it was impossible to continue negotiating, he wrote, he would furnish the museum with some clues to the paintings' whereabouts. Nothing else was ever heard from the writer.

Poster on highway announcing reward for recovery of stolen Vermeer painting

Twenty years after the theft, the FBI attempted to stir up new leads by posting two billboards that promised a $5 million reward on Boston-area I-93 in Stoneham and on I-495 in Lawrence. The authorities estimated about 120,000 people passed by the Stoneham billboard each day and about 80,000 by the one in Lawrence. Billboards were also put up along Route 93 and Route 30 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The reward, which the FBI calls the largest in history, would be paid if the stolen art is recovered in good condition.

On June 22, 2011, Bulger was arrested outside an apartment in Santa Monica, California with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig. Bulger was 81 years old at the time of his arrest. However, he has not so far confessed to stealing the painting.

FBI confrence announcing the identifiaction of the theives of the Gardener heist
FBI confrence announcing the identifiaction of the theives of the Gardener heist

On 19 March, 2013, on the 23rd anniversary of the crime, the FBI made the stunning announcement that they knew who was behind 1990 theft, but they did not supply names because the investigation was ongoing. The FBI spokesman said "they are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England." Officials are quoted as saying "We vetted it out, we don't make that kind of announcement lightly." No information was given of whether the thieves were dead or alive. The bureau also said it believes the Vermeer's Concert—including works by Rembrandt—was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia area and that the thieves unsuccessfully tried to sell some of the artwork in Philadelphia about 10 years before.

The new effort may have been an attempt to replicate the 2011 publicity blitz that led authorities to Bulger after a 16-year manhunt. The FBI was also using social media and similar tools more often to enlist the public's help and resubmitted DNA samples for updated testing.

The FBI's Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Office Richard DesLauriers stated on a video clip that the case was past the point of statute of limitations so "we're not particularly interested in at this point pursuing criminal charges against those who are responsible for the theft."

To recover stolen items artworks the FBI employs a specialized Art Crime Team of 14 special agents supported by special trial attorneys. The FBI also runs the National Stolen Art File, a computerized index of stolen art and cultural properties that is used as a reference by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

The frame of Vermeer's stolen Concert

On May, 2013, The Boston Globe reported that the FBI believed that Robert Gentile, 76, a used-car salesman in Manchester, Conn, convicted of receiving stolen goods, carrying a deadly weapon in a motor vehicle and possession of illegal firearms, had information on the heist. Gentile, 76, has denied knowing anything about the heist, but the assistant US Attorney John Durham wrote in his sentencing memo that Gentile has been identified by several people as a member of a Philadelphia crime family. Gentile failed a FBI polygraph test when asked if he knew anything about the Boston heist--according to the polygraph expert, there is a 99 per cent chance that Gentile knows something about the heist. Moreover, when Gentile's house in Manchester, Conn. was searched, they found a handwritten list of the stolen paintings, their estimated worth and a newspaper article about the heist a day after it happened. Authorities also searched the Gentile's property with ground-penetrating radar in an attempt to find the stolen artworks, but did not come up with the paintings.

Gentile is said to have been a close associate of the late Robert Guarente, a Mafia figure who died in 2004 and has been a central point of the investigation. Both Guarente and Gentile had ties to the Philadelphia Mafia. Gentile denied ties to the Mafia or the paintings.

After 23 years of dead ends, investigators examined the possibility that former night watchman Abath might have been in on the crime all along — or at least knows more about it than he has admitted. It had never been explained why Abath's footsteps the only ones picked up on motion detectors in a first floor gallery where one of the stolen paintings why eh had opened the side entrance to the museum minutes before the robbers rang the buzzer to get in. Abath admitted that some of his actions are hard to explain, but instead he had nothing to do with the heist. The police, who had contacted him four years earlier, told Abath that his bank accounts had been monitored for years for any signs of sudden wealth. However, his lifestyle showed no suspicious signs. Nonetheless, police maintained that in 1990, the year of the heist, the 23-year-old Abath was chronically short of money and his drug consumption and partying lifestyle during the two years he worked at the Gardner could have brought him in contact with members of the underworld. Despite suspicions about his conduct, Abath said he does not feel ashamed that his actions led to the theft.

Christopher Marinello, of The Art Loss Register, an organization that maintains a database of stolen and missing artwork, recently stated that "a quarter of a century is not that unusual for stolen paintings to be returned. Eventually they will resurface. Somebody will rat somebody else out. It's really only a matter of time."

Today, several empty frames hang in the Dutch Room gallery, both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for when they are returned. The only problem is that unless such extremely fragile art works have been detained in optimal environmental conditions, they would have easily been attacked by mold and perished. Despite the Gardner's unflagging optimism, the FBI says only 5 percent of stolen artwork is ever returned to its rightful owners.

As time passes, the chances of recovering Vermeer's Concert,the greatest art heist of all time, looks as dim as ever.

Robert Gentile, the mobster who has long been suspected to harbor knowledge on the whereabouts of the stolen art in the case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is said to be near death, according to his attorney Ryan McGuigan.

Gentile's attorney McGuigan maintains his client's innocence, saying in a statement to The Guardian. 'His story has never changed in the six years that I have represented him.'

Despite such claims, a 2012 search of Gentile's home uncovered a handwritten list of the stolen art, its estimated value and police uniforms, according to The Guardian. (Fake police uniforms were donned by the thieves during the looting.)

Gentile is privy to information regarding the works' whereabouts: “I told him that if there ever was a time to give up some information that you haven't yet, that I don't know, this would be it,” he said.

Yet the likelihood of a deathbed confession seems slim, as the mobster continues to defend himself and his innocence. As artnet News previously reported, upon the FBI's most recent search of his home in May 2016, Gentile said, “They ain't gonna find nuttin."

drawn from:
"Mobster Thought to Know Location of US's Biggest Art Heist Loot Is Near Death," , October 3, 2016
by Caroline Elbaor (artnet news)

To mark the 25th anniversary of the largest art theft in American history, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has created a virtual tour of the 13 items, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, that were stolen from the museum on March 18th, 1990.

Regarding the heist, see ARTNEWS Sarah Cascone's article "Notorious Massachusetts Museum Heist to Become Hollywood Movie.

Stolen artworks:

  • The Concert by Vermeer by Vermeer
  • A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt
  • The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (the artist's only known seascape)
  • Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (postage-stamp-sized)
  • Landscape with Obelisk by Govaert Flinck (formerly attributed to Rembrandt)
  • Chez Tortoni by Manet
  • Five drawings by Degas:
    La Sortie de Pesage
    Cortege aux Environs de Florence
    Program for an artistic soiree 1 & 2
    Three Mounted Jockeys
  • An ancient Chinese Ku from the Shang Dynasty
  • A finial in the shape of an eagle from a Napoleonic flag
  1. Quoted material by, Stephen Kurkjian, Secrets behind the largest art theft in history, BostonGlobe.com, March 13, 2005 <http://www.boston.com/news/specials/gardner_heist/heist/>