Is there a new way to tell an old story, an infamous story, the story of an absence that defines a place more than what remains? For the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, that’s the existential dilemma of the past 30 years.
The 1990 Gardner Museum art heist has been so often retold it borders on litany, with a half dozen books and a podcast (co-created by the Boston Globe) in its canon. The theft of 13 works is so well known, it’s a cottage industry for the museum itself. A souvenir shrine of theft-related merch occupies the window of the gift shop (with framed prints of both stolen Rembrandts, plus the missing Vermeer and Manet decorating a table with flickering electric candles). Upstairs in the galleries, the museum keeps a permanent vigil in memoriam: empty frames where the stolen paintings once hung, declaring their spectral presence. It’s always given the Gardner a feeling of being haunted, a site of profound and lingering loss.
With the 30th anniversary of the theft, the Gardner’s seance is complete. To mark the occasion, the museum has created an audio tour that tracks the thieves’ progress, step by step, in the early morning hours of March 18. It’s eerily akin to walking with ghosts.
Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s head of security, invites you to join him in the museum’s Dutch room, with its black tile floors and deep wood trim. Stand with your back to the lush subtropical courtyard, he says — so unusual, so humid, with its palms and bamboo shoots arching up to the mezzanine — and look back to the sea-green brocade wall with its two gilded frames, yawning wide with emptiness.
The scene he paints is vivid: The door to your right is where the thieves entered at 1:48 a.m., according to motion sensor alarms. The Dutch room was their first stop; the Rembrandts, their quarry. This much investigators know; “The motion sensors tell us the route the thieves took that night; that’s the route we’re following,” Amore tells you.
The sound of churning water fills your ear as Amore begins to describe “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt’s only seascape, dark and magnificent, with a ship tossed upon turbulent waves. The thieves take the painting down and put it on the floor, face up. A mechanical scratchiness rises in the headset — the sound of a dot matrix printer, transcribing the museum’s motion sensor data. The thieves put the other large Rembrandt on the floor before cutting both works from their frames.
As he guides you, piece by piece — to a landscape by Flinck, one of Rembrandt’s apprentices; to Vermeer’s “The Concert,” which the thieves theatrically held face-down to remove the canvas and let the glass shatter on the floor — Amore’s voice is steady, but somber. He took over as lead investigator in 2005; how many times has he walked this exact path, forward, backward, looking for something, anything someone else might have missed?
The tour is a stroll through the mechanics of the perfect art heist, the largest ever pulled off. But isn’t it also an expedition into the mind of the one person more intimate with the events of that night, and maybe more tortured by them, than any other? The Gardner could have hired an actor, which might have added an air of urgency, of potboiler drama. Amore, instead, sounds forlorn, his sense of loss achingly genuine. There’s something perfect about Amore’s natural cadence, slow and clear, crumbling at the edges. It leavens the story’s inherent sensationalism, brings it down to ground, moors it to reality. The theft is the Gardner’s loss, but there’s something unmistakable, in hearing his voice, that it’s just as much Amore’s.
You can’t help but be fascinated — the dot matrix printer chattering in your ear, the theft coming to ghostly life before your eyes. You leave the Dutch room under Amore’s watchful eye, passing through the red-walled Early Italian room, vibrant with Botticelli and Raphael on its walls, left untouched. Then you enter the narrow Short Gallery, where the thieves took six Degas drawings from folding sections of cabinet and detached a Napoleonic finial before stalking back to the Dutch room to prepare for escape. The tour feels illicit, shading the museum’s vaulted corridors and grand chambers with a tinge of mystery, a touch of evil.
With Amore, it feels like something else: Personal. “Move down the stairs,” Amore tells you, guiding down to the sole crime scene on the main floor. “Meet me in the courtyard. On the way to the red cushioned benches, I’ll tell you what happened when the thieves came down to this level, using the stairs you just descended.” It’s 2:45 a.m., and the thieves take one last thing: “Chez Tortoni,” a small portrait of a man in a top hat by Edouard Manet. Its empty frame sits in the Blue Room, beneath a large Manet portrait of a woman which, Amore tells us, was in the Gardner’s conservation lab the night of the theft.
When the thieves fled the museum for good, they left the small Manet frame on the security desk. It feels almost like a dare: Catch me if you can. “I’ll leave you with a thought, and a request,” Amore says. “There’s not a day goes by that we’re not working alongside the FBI on the case.” His plea is for facts, not theories — “believe me, we’ve heard every theory a thousand times.” The works are gone, he says, but not forgotten — and maybe by no one less than Anthony Amore himself.
GARDNER MUSEUM THEFT WALK
The tour is available online while the museum is closed due to coronavirus concerns. www.gardnermuseum.org.