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Netflix series looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist

“This Is a Robbery” looks at the world’s most infamous art heist: the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a mystery that remains unsolved three decades later.

The 1990 theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is getting the Netflix treatment with the new documentary “This Is a Robbery.”
The 1990 theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is getting the Netflix treatment with the new documentary “This Is a Robbery.”David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It is the world’s most infamous art theft, an unsolved mystery that over the past three decades has inspired articles, newscasts, books, documentaries, podcasts, even art projects.

Now, the 1990 theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is getting the Netflix treatment: “This Is a Robbery,” a four-part documentary series created by Boston-area natives Nick and Colin Barnicle.

The project, which debuts April 7th, was years in the making, as the Barnicle brothers chased down legal documents, sifted through 30 years’ worth of leads, and coaxed sources to sit for on-camera interviews.

Director Colin Barnicle said that although they vetted “every single possible theory,” most of that research doesn’t appear on screen.

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“We were trying to make a road map, but not one where you can go off on like 18 different exit ramps,” he said. Rather, they wanted to show “the most probable thrust of what happened that night and within the first year after the crime.”

Still, the question remained: How do you shine a new light on the Gardner heist, the great white whale of art crime, in which a pair of thieves dressed as policemen pilfered works by Rembrandt, Degas, and Vermeer in the early hours of March 18, 1990?

“We wanted to take the viewer through it as if it was happening at that moment,” said Colin Barnicle. “They get all the ups and downs of getting really close to finding the art. You get really high, and then you just collapse because it’s like it goes through your fingers.”

The documentary series is a first for the Barnicle brothers in more ways than than one. The brothers (sons of journalist and former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle) are best known for producing films about sports and music, including the New York Emmy Award-winning “Billy Joel: New York State of Mind.”

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Filmmakers Nick and Colin Barnicle.
Filmmakers Nick and Colin Barnicle.Noa Griffel

It is also their first Netflix project, and their first time working with executive producers Jane Rosenthal and Berry Welsh. Linda Pizzuti Henry, chief executive officer of Boston Globe Media Partners, parent company of The Boston Globe, is also an executive producer on the project.

But Nick Barnicle, who along with his brother is listed as an executive producer, said they’ve been at work on the documentary for so long it no longer feels like new terrain.

“Even though we were kind of known as the sports-doc guys, we were always working on this on the side,” said Nick Barnicle. “We were always interested in this.”

Colin Barnicle said the series draws on the work of previous investigators who “laid the groundwork,” and includes interviews with a number of current and former Globe reporters, criminal investigators, museum workers, and others associated with the case.

Nevertheless, the brothers say they’ve also unearthed tantalizing new clues.

“Even if you’ve read all the books, if you’ve listened to anything on it, there’s going to be new things in there,” said Colin Barnicle. “And we reach a conclusion.”

Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," one of the artworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," one of the artworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.REUTERS

So who did it?

“It’s a case that lends itself to a lot of mystery,” Colin Barnicle said. “I would say we identify the people that went into the museum.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation made a similar claim in 2013, when it announced it had identified the thieves, but declined to name them, citing the ongoing investigation. Still, there’s never been an arrest, and the location of the art, valued at $500 million, remains a mystery despite a $10 million reward.

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The brothers describe the series as a treasure map, giving viewers powerful clues and a good grasp of what happened that terrible night in the Fenway 31 years ago.

“I think we shine the brightest light that we can possibly shine on every single detail,” said Nick Barnicle, who said he hoped Netflix’s massive reach might help solve the crime. “At the end of the fourth episode you have at your disposal so many different details…who knows?”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.