The Gardner Museum Heist, 1990
If you go to the Gardner Museum in Boston, you will find thirteen picture frames hanging on the wall, devoid of contents. They do not form part of a post-modernist art collection but hang there both as a reminder of an audacious robbery which deprived the museum of their prize exhibits worth around $500 million but also as a beacon of hope that someday, somehow the pictures will be recovered.
They haven’t so far.
The key to a successful robbery is perfect planning a keeping it simple. Too many moving parts in the plan merely increase the chances of something going wrong. And the Garner Museum heist was simplicity personified.
As a city with a large Irish community, St Patrick’s Day in Boston is one of the highlights of the year. March 17th 1990 was no exception and there were celebrations, some rather noisy and drunken, around the city and one in close proximity to the Museum. At 1.24 am on the 18th someone dressed in a police uniform rang on the museum’s bell. When a security guard – there were only two on the site at the time – opened the door, the policeman and his colleague said that they were responding to a report of a disturbance at the Museum and requested that they be let in.
The security guard, Richard Abath, wasn’t sure whether his orders to prohibit anyone from entering extended to include the police and so, on his own initiative, let the officers in. One of the officers looked him up and down and said that Abath looked familiar and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Ordering Abath away from the security desk where the only security button was, the policeman handcuffed him. It was only then that Abath realised anything was amiss – the police officer was wearing a false moustache.
The second security appeared on the scene minutes later but was quickly handcuffed. When he enquired why the police had arrested him, he was told that they were not policemen but robbers about to steal from the gallery. The guards were taken to the basement and handcuffed to pipes and bound.
Although the museum had motion detectors and local alarm systems, the bogus policemen went about their unlawful duty, removing some of the gallery’s most prized exhibits, including Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer’s The Concert, five Vermeer drawings and an eagle finial which lay on top of a Napoleonic flag. They were unable to unscrew the flag from the wall and the mess that they left suggested that they had been unsuccessful in attempting to make off with other works of art.
In all, the robbery took around eighty minutes to accomplish and the thieves had enough time to make two trips to their car, a red Daytona, with their haul. They then went back to the basement to tell the guards that they would be hearing from them again in about a year. The guards never did hear from them and were not rescued, nor was the robbery detected, until 8.15 in the morning when other staff arrived.
Despite the fact that the thieves’ movements around the gallery could be tracked on the motion detection system, the police had no images to give them a clue as to the perpetrators. The FBI believe that it was the work of a criminal organisation based in New England, that the artwork was offered for sale in Philadelphia and that they have a good idea of the identities of the duo, both now dead. But there was not enough to press charges.
It seems those frames will be empty for quite a while.