Reviving the Story Behind the Greatest Art Heist Ever

By: John Donovan  | 

This is a Robbery: The Worlds Biggest Art Heist.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed March 18, 1990, by two men dressed as Boston police officers. They walked out with 13 priceless pieces of art, including two Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five Degas drawings valued today at about $500 million. c. Courtesy of Netflix ©2021

Does something truly qualify as a mystery if nobody knows about it in the first place? Or, put another way: How do you have a "whodunnit" if you don't even know what the "it" is?

Two Boston-born filmmakers wrestled with those riddles, along with many, many, many others, in their pursuit of the little-known story of the world's biggest art heist, the 1990 St. Patrick's Day dead-of-the-night rip-off of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Two Rembrandt paintings, a Vermeer, a Manet and five Degas drawings were among the 13 works stolen that March night. At the time, experts put the value of loss at about $200 million. Today, the artwork is worth somewhere around $500 million.

None of the art has been recovered. None of the thieves has been positively identified, let alone brought to trial. A $10 million reward lays unclaimed.

More than 30 years have passed. Still, nothing. It is a mystery crying for the telling.

In a four-part true crime series on Netflix, "This is a Robbery," brothers Nick and Colin Barnicle breathe life into a story that they've been after for years. Their first challenge: Letting people know that there is a story there.

"I honestly think that 99 percent of people just didn't know the story. At all," says Colin Barnicle, who served as the director of the film. "I do feel like it's an unwieldy story. It's 31 years and there's a ton of threads ...

"I think the major pull in doing this was to bring everything all together, get a real good look at the case file, so to speak. And that was tough."

This is a Robbery: The Worlds Biggest Art Heist
The Barnicle brothers used printouts from the museum's security system to retrace the footsteps of the robbers while they were in the museum to see which exhibits they spent the most time in.
c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

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What Happened at the Gardner Museum?

In the first hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers were buzzed into a side door of the museum, a building that The New York Times described as "an evocative, almost magical place where generations of Bostonians have gone to admire art, seek a moment of solace or take a date to kindle romance." The thieves immediately subdued the two security guards on duty, hustling them into the basement and duct-taping their hands and feet. For the next 81 minutes, the robbers roamed the museum freely.

The bad guys cut Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee" — Rembrandt's only painted seascape — and "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" from their frames. They lifted the Vermeer — "The Concert" — and other pieces out of their frames, and took even more works off walls and pedestals.

The thieves didn't get past the motion sensors, which were activated and later provided a virtual map of their footsteps. But at the time, the alarms weren't connected to any outside source. So at 2:45 a.m., after two trips to their getaway vehicle, the criminals softly slipped away. The guards were discovered, unharmed and still bound, when cleaning crews arrived later that morning.

Almost immediately recognized as the largest art heist ever, the robbery instantly was big news throughout the world. But by later that year, as leads disintegrated and investigations by the police and the FBI foundered, the Gardner Museum theft faded from the front pages of newspapers and out of the public consciousness.

Yet the mystery, and its two biggest questions, remain: Who did it? And, more importantly, where is the artwork?

This is a Robbery: The Worlds Biggest Art Heist
Anne Hawley was the Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when it was robbed in 1990. She had been on the job for just six months.
c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

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Reviving the Story

The Barnicle brothers began thinking about the project in 2013, and started in on producing it a year later. In its finished form, "This is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist" is a roughly four-hour series. (The brothers say a "Barnicle Cut" might last for days.) It showcases many of the story's more outrageous characters.

There's the stoner security guard who allowed the thieves into the museum and was suspected, early on, of being part of an inside job. There's the notorious art thief, Myles Connor, who also was briefly considered a suspect and who helped the brothers shed light on a grimy world of crime bosses and their muscle.

There are mobsters (names like Whitey Bulger, Bobby Donati, Bobby Guarente and Carmello Merlino are all tossed out); dogged reporters and amateur sleuths; the respected curator of the museum, Ann Hawley; FBI agents, police, lawyers. All of them figure, in one way or another, in an intricate tale that rests largely on the premise that the artwork was stolen by members of a Boston organized crime syndicate.

The belief: Jailed wiseguys can use priceless art to barter for their freedom, a kind of "Get Out of Jail Free" masterpiece for mobsters.

Some of the suspects in the crime are now dead. Some have been cleared of suspicion. Some we may not even know about yet.

But at this point, despite all the digging by law enforcement, local newspapers, several authors (including Stephen Kurkjian in "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist"), and the Barnicles themselves, the case couldn't be colder. You have to wonder now if we'll ever know who pulled off this heist or if we'll ever see the artwork again.

Nick Barnicle wonders, too. But after all these years, he's keeping the faith.

"The power of Netflix's platform is incredible, just the reach. To have the story go out globally, I don't think that's a small thing in terms of potentially solving the mystery," says Nick, who served as one of the executive producers of the film. "This is the first really big documentary on it to reach a large audience.

"I think that [Boston reporter] Shelley Murphy says it best [in the film]: It may just be [solved with] an innocuous, 'Hey, grandpa's dead, look what we found,' next-generation type of thing."

Does that mean he envisions a happy ending to the greatest art heist ever?

"I wouldn't be so shocked to see one or two of the pieces [still] in the New England area. Are all 13 together? Probably not. Are all 13 coming back? Probably not," Nick says. "But we'd like to see one come back."

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Have You Seen Any of the Stolen Art?

stolen Rembrandts
(From left) "A Lady and Gentleman in Black", 1633, is an oil on canvas, 51 13/16 x 42 15/16 inches (131.6 x 109 centimeters) by Rembrandt. It was stolen from the Dutch Room. It is signed and dated in the lower left, Rembrandt.ft: 1633. "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee", 1633, also is an oil on canvas, 63 x 50 3/8 inches (160 x 128 centimeters) by Rembrandt. It's the only seascape by the master painter. It too was taken from the Dutch Room. This painting alone is worth about $100 million.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
stolen Rembrandt
(From left) Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert", 1663-1666, is an oil on canvas, 28 9/16 x 25 1/2 inches (72.5 x 64.7 centimeters) that was stolen from the Dutch Room. "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", about 1633, is a small self-portrait etching, 1 3/4 x 1 15/16 inches (4.5 x 5 centimeters) by Rembrandt stolen from the Dutch Room.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Stolen Manet Chez Tortoni
"Chez Tortoni", 1875, by Édouard Manet is an oil on canvas, 10 1/4 x 13 3/8 inches (26 x 34 centimeters) stolen from the Blue Room. It is signed in the lower left, Manet.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Govaert Flinck stolen art
Long thought to be by Rembrandt, this landscape, "Landscape with an Obelisk", 1638, was recognized in the 1980s as the work of his pupil, Govaert Flinck. It was taken from the Dutch Room. It's an oil on panel, 21 7/16 x 27 15/16 inches (54.5 x 71 centimeters).
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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