The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: The Largest Art Heist in History

Micaela Preble
August 8, 2022

Known as the most significant art theft in history, the 1990 art heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum still haunts historians. Now some 30 years later,  the mystery remains of the whereabouts and location of the 13 missing masterpieces.

What is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

The stolen works were originally procured by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) and intended for permanent display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, with the rest of her collection. The artworks from the Gardner Museum Heist have been valued at hundreds of millions of dollars by the FBI and art dealers.

Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt (c.1633)

The Early Morning Hours of March 18, 1990…

At 1:24 am, two men dressed as Boston police officers were buzzed into the museum, claiming that they were responding to a disturbance linked to the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. They overpowered and disarmed the two security guards on duty, duct-taping them to pipes in the museum’s basement.

The two thieves proceeded to remove 13 masterpieces on display in the Dutch Room. They smashed the protective glass and cut the canvas paintings from their gilded empty frames. The whole theft took 81 minutes, a feat that gives it the title  “The World’s Biggest Art Heist.”

With the thieves departing around 2:25 am, the two guards were not found until police were called in by the next set of museum staff around 8:15.

The theft is still unsolved, and the stolen art is still missing as of publishing.

Today, one would assume that a museum with an extensive collection from a prominent collector would have security to stop this kind of attack. However, this was not the case with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Boston museum was well renowned for its beautiful architecture, with the collection held in Gardner’s Venetian palazzo-inspired home. After Isabella Gardner died in 1924 the museum gradually fell into disrepair, and security became increasingly lax. By 1990 this was common knowledge, leaving the museum an easy target.

What art was stolen from the Gardner museum art heist?

The total value of the stolen artwork is valued at over $500 million today. Among the artworks stolen was The Concert, one of only 34 known paintings by Johannes Vermeer and thought to be the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world. 

Also missing is Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn’s only seascape. Other paintings and sketches by Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Dutch painter Govert Flinck, and Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black, were stolen.

Along with the stolen paintings and sketches was an eagle finial. The thieves had attempted to steal a flag of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, but were unable to break the glass encasment, leaving them to settle for the finial which was on display next to the flag. Another piece stolen was a Chinese bronze vessel.

Although the thieves made out with an extensive collection of works of art and some of the museum’s greatest treasures, they left the most valuable work in the museum untouched: Titian’s The Rape of Europa.

Who Stole The Art from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

Though the art heist remains unsolved, there is speculation about the identities of the thieves. These are among the most popular theories.

Boston Mafia

In 2013, the FBI announced that it had high confidence regarding the identity of the two thieves. Two years later, they unveiled the names of the primary suspects: George Resifelder and Leonardo DiMuzio, two associates of the Boston mafia mobster Carmello Merlino, the head of the powerful New England Merlino crime family.

Other members associated with the Merlino gang that were investigated were Robert Guarente and Robert Gentile of Manchester, Connecticut. The only ties to these two associates are that Guarante’s widow had told the FBI in 2010 that her husband did have the paintings in his possession — a claim that was never corroborated, given that Guarante had passed away in 2004. There was also a copy of the Boston Herald reporting the art heist found in their basement.

The final member of the crime family investigated was Bobby Donati. He was considered a person of interest by art thief Myles J. Connor Jr., who was incarcerated during the time of the heist. He claimed that Donati had participated in heists before and had looked at the Gardner Museum previously. No further action on this lead could be taken due to the fact that Donati was murdered in 1991.

Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632

Museum Guards

The original theory was that the two guards on duty that night had played some kind of role in the theft, because typically art crimes of this nature typically require an inside source.

Rick Abath, one of the guards, was under particular scrutiny. He was a regular guard during that shift, and security footage showed Abath opening and closing the door where the suspected thieves had entered.

Another suspicious factor was that the museum’s motion detectors did not signal during the time of the theft. In 2015, the FBI released security footage from March 17th, the night before the theft, of Abath buzzing in an unidentified man.

There has still been no conclusion on whether or not Abath was part of the heist.

What Happened to The Stolen Paintings?

Although the artworks still haven’t been recovered, visitors can visit the Garner in person or through a virtual tour showing the empty frames left behind.

The most significant art heist in history has also grabbed the interest of popular culture. In 2021, Netflix released a documentary series titled This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. This documentary dug into the different theories around the missing artworks and conducted exclusive interviews with those closest to the case.

The four-part series was built upon the Boston Globe’s investigative podcast, Last Seen. This show was meant to expand the audience for the theft in hopes that information would be brought forward.

The artwork from the heist has still never been recovered, and the case remains open. The FBI and museum are offering a handsome reward of $10 million reward for information leading to the art’s recovery, the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution.

Those with any information should email Security Chief Anthony Amore at reward@gardnermuseum.org.


Micaela Preble
Micaela is an NYC-based art content writer covering art investing, art news, and art historical content. Micaela graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History with a minor in communication arts. During her time at GSU she was a member of The Design Group (DG) and Student Art League (SAL) while also actively participating in curating and volunteering at the Center for Art and Theatre.