Art Heist: Gardner Museum Theft

Art Heist: Gardner Museum Theft
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Under the Influence: Art Itself

Do you know art?  Have you been to a museum or a gallery where you can see legendary works of art?  How did you feel when you saw your first famous painting? Art makes of itself an emotional experience and we may feel sadness, surprise, curiosity, or even have feelings that evoke anger or repulsion.  Art has always been the catalyst for emotion and there have been numerous studies on human aesthetic responses to art. Cognitive science tells us that when we appraise our artful surroundings our emotions are activated, and MRIs done on the brain during these times bear this out. Music and poetry also form a bridge between our experience and life feelings and these three are like the trifecta of emotional involvement.

Art becomes valuable based on its artistic meaning, authorship, and significance in history.  If it is further judged by an expert’s subjective opinion of the work’s beauty, he or she is also influenced by the reputation of the artist who created it and its uniqueness in order to assign it a value. The more art is one-of-a-kind, that singularity kicks up its preciousness.

Under the Shade: Museums, Art Dealers and Auction Houses

The world of art is, well, shady—there is no other way to spell it.  It is common for art dealers to keep secret the details of their products and sales figures in order to drive up the prices artificially.  It is also a buyer-beware situation because of the legal pitfalls that can trip up a novice. For example, if a seller claims to have an original Monet, it may have been stolen or forged and this threatens the buyer’s investment.  Victims who pick up forgeries have little recourse against the seller or anyone else. Oftentimes if a work of art is authentic, but there is no title or claim, the buyer must return the stolen art without compensation no matter how long a person or family may have held it.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if the painting is a wise investment because reliable information may not be forthcoming under this desire for secrecy. And the size of the art market is tremendous. Sotheby’s auction house had an estimated $5.4 billion in sales in 2012.

Many scarce and limited editions are dealt with privately and kept out of public purview.  On the other hand, a seller may attempt to boost prices by having hired agents to bid up the works at auction.  Profit may be driven by who stands to gain the most.

Under the Spell: Art Thieves

We can’t say what someone who steals art looks or feels like because there is no type.  Art is stolen for dozens of reasons very personal to the taker. Someone may steal because they need the insurance money, while another might be trying to influence other groups or even friends.  More than a few have admitted to being obsessed with the work—they couldn’t get owning it out of their minds. A man named John Quentin Feller was a kind of Robin Hood art scholar who specialized in Chinese porcelain.  He lifted ceramics from a dozen institutions that he believed didn’t really appreciate the art and he frequently donated them to other places that promised to display and care for them better.

Often a professional art thief will take lesser-known works and, because the art market is largely unregulated, will sell mid-level canvases to buyers so crazy to buy that they don’t know or care where they came from.

Undercover: Stolen Art

Now that you know some of how art is appraised and valued, you will understand why the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft is so utterly heinous.  It goes like this:

Outside, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is castle-like, a four-story building similar to a Renaissance-era Venetian palazzo.  There is a courtyard with soaring balconies and blooming palms and hothouse jasmines. Inside is a world-class collection. Gardner developed a passion for art and had the money to create her own treasure chest.  There were authentic works of art by Titian, Velázquez, Raphael, Manet and Botticelli. She had the first Matisse acquired by an American museum and so many beautiful paintings and sketches that adorned wood-paneled walls, sculpture in alcoves amid valuable furniture, and a special area for porcelains and other highly collectible masterpieces.

The world’s largest unsolved art theft happened at the museum which is located in Boston, Massachusetts.  It took place early in the morning on March 18, 1990. The city was hosting St. Patrick’s Day parties all over Boston.  When the streets quieted down about 12:30 a.m., a guard in the museum heard a buzz from the intercom at the side entrance.  Two men appeared dressed in police uniforms, with caps, and regulation knee-length coats complete with police insignia on their lapels, as if ready for the wet New England night.  

The two cops claimed to be police answering to a disturbance in the courtyard: “Police. Let us in.”  A security guard, Ray Abell, responded. Abell was a student at Berklee College of Music and is short in stature with curly hair bordering his shoulders.  For him, this job was a rest between rock shows where he played at local bars. He was on the third shift.  

Abell studied the men from the video monitor—and this is weird, but, 30 minutes earlier a fire alarm had gone off in the conservation lab, fourth floor.  Ten minutes after that, another alarm rang in the carriage house. A little spooked to begin with, he had checked out both incidents with a flashlight and noted no flames or smoke.  

The police demanded to see the other guard.  Abell calls Ralph Helman, his co-worker. There is some chatter from the police about Abell needing to show identification.  Then Helman shows. He’s tall, thin, with a brown beard and he’s about 28 years old. On this night he was filling in for a guard who called in sick.  One of the policemen roughly takes control of Helman and throws handcuffs on his wrists. The other cop grabs Abell and they announce that this is a robbery.  The two guards are silenced and tied up in the basement. And by 2:45 am, the police imposters have stolen thirteen artworks, valued at more than $300 million (at the time).  They have carried out the largest-ever single property theft. The robbers also carefully removed the video tape of their evening as they left.

Today a lot of time has gone by and the return of the paintings seems remote.  The FBI committed tremendous manpower and forensic resources for many years. The authorities made countless appeals to recover the works, including broadcasting that the statute of limitations has run out on the crime and anyone who participated can no longer be prosecuted.  The trustees of the museum have offered a $10 million-dollar reward. Nothing has ever surfaced. The valuable art is gone.


Boser, Ulrich. The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft. New York: Thorndike Press, 2008.

Day, Gregory. (2014). Explaining the art market’s thefts, frauds, and forgeries (and why the art market does not seem to care). Vanderbilt Journal Of Entertainment & Technology Law.Vol.16 (3).

Guillain, Charlotte. Great Art Thefts. Chicago: Raintree/Capstone Global Library, 2013.

Kurkjian, Stephen. Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. New York: PublicAffairs/Perseus Books Group, 2015.

Ng, Jonathan (2019). FBI art heist agent says missing Gardner works may not be in U.S.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Art and Emotion

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft and reward (See: the works taken)

Virtual tour of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Image: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt (1633).  One of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Public Domain.