On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers robbed Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of $500 million worth of prized artwork. The stolen masterpieces were never recovered.
Though the heist went down 33 years ago this Saturday, it remains a mystery today. Thirteen valuable works were stolen, including a Vermeer, three Rembrandts — including his only seascape — five Degas drawings, a Flinck and a Manet.
Here’s a look back at how the saga unfolded.
Early March 1990: Two weeks before the heist, a Gardner guard noticed something peculiar on his video screen: a young man being assaulted by a couple of men. He then heard someone, perhaps the youth, banging on the museum side door asking for refuge inside. The guard told the young man he would call the police instead.
Before police arrived, however, all of the men, including the one being assaulted, jumped into a car and sped off. Investigators wondered if that was the thieves’ first attempt, or a test run. But soon after the heist investigators identified the individuals as museum employees who were playing a “harmless prank,” Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director, told the Globe on Friday, March 17, 2023.
March 18, 1990: Four people leaving a St. Patrick’s Day party at an apartment building behind the Gardner noticed two men in police uniforms sitting in a car parked outside the museum sometime after midnight.
At 1:24 a.m., a Gardner guard, Richard Abath, opened the door to allow in two men disguised as police officers and claiming to be investigating a disturbance. The thieves handcuffed and duct-taped Abath and a fellow guard and spent 81 minutes robbing the museum. They cut two and pulled masterpieces from their frames, leaving shards of glass and remnants of canvas behind.
They also removed the videotape from the recorder that had captured their images at the museum’s side door as well as elsewhere in the building, before slipping out into the empty street at 2:45 a.m. The guards tied up in the basement wouldn’t be found until police were called at 8:15 a.m.
March 21, 1990: The museum announced a $1 million award for information leading to the safe return of the stolen masterpieces.
April 1994: The museum received a letter from an anonymous writer who said he could facilitate the return of the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million and full immunity from prosecution for the thieves and those who held the paintings. The museum turned the letter, postmarked in New York, over to the FBI.
May 1, 1994: The Boston Globe played a role in negotiations with the letter writer. As per the anonymous writer’s request, the Sunday edition of the Globe included the numeral “1″ inserted in the US-foreign dollar exchange listing for the Italian lira.
Matthew V. Storin, editor of the Globe in 1994, said he was told of the letter’s contents and agreed to insert the numeral — being careful not to make the currency listing itself inaccurate — at the request of Richard S. Swensen, the special agent in charge of the FBI Boston office.
“I saw it as a community-service decision,” Storin said, adding that he cleared the move with William O. Taylor, the Globe’s publisher at the time, and made it clear to Swensen that he expected the paper to get the first word if the overture led to the paintings’ return.
A week later in May 1994: The museum received a second letter from the anonymous writer, alarmed by the aggressive reaction by law enforcement after the museum received his letter. He wondered if the museum and authorities were interested in getting the paintings returned or in arresting a low-level intermediary.
“YOU CANNOT HAVE BOTH,” he wrote, adding, “Right now I need time to both think and start the process to insure confidentiality of the exchange.”
If he decided it was impossible to continue negotiating, he wrote, he would provide the museum with some clues to the paintings’ whereabouts. But he never wrote the museum again.
1997: The museum increased its award to $5 million, making it the largest private reward in the world at the time.
2010: FBI investigators trekked to Maine to search the home of Boston Mafia associate Robert Guarente, who they believed had some of the artwork before he died in 2004. A search of his farmhouse did not turn up anything, but Guarente’s wife told agents that prior to his death he gave two of the stolen paintings to Connecticut mobster Robert V. Gentile.
Gentile denied this, but he became the focus of the FBI investigation henceforth.
2012: Authorities searched Gentile’s Manchester, Conn., home and found a handwritten list of the stolen paintings and their estimated worth, along with a newspaper article about the museum heist a day after it happened, as well as ammunition, guns, silencers, explosives, and cash, according to prosecutors.
2013: The FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves — local criminals who have since died — but declined to name them. Authorities said they believed some of the artwork changed hands through organized crime circles while moving from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold.
A witness deemed credible by the FBI claimed to have seen one of the paintings, “The Storm,” when someone tried to sell it in Philadelphia around 2003, the FBI said.
May 12, 2015: The museum announced an additional $100,000 reward for the return of one of the least valuable items stolen in the heist, a bronze eagle finial.
May 2017: The museum doubled its reward for information leading to the safe recovery of the stolen artwork to $10 million, though it would revert back to $5 million if no one came forward by Jan. 1.
Jan. 11, 2018: The museum extended the $10 million award amount indefinitely.
March 2019: Gentile was released from prison after serving four and a half years for illegally selling prescription drugs and possessing guns, silencers, and ammunition. “I had nothing to do with the paintings. It’s a big joke,” Gentile told the Associated Press at the time.
Sept. 17, 2021: Gentile died at Hartford Hospital after having a stroke. Long suspected by federal authorities of having information on the whereabouts of the masterpieces, Gentile continued to deny he knew anything in the weeks leading up to his death, according to his attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan.
November 2021: Boston jeweler Paul Calantropo claimed that in the spring of 1990, his longtime friend Bobby Donati showed him the shiny finial in the shape of an eagle that was stolen in the heist.
Calantropo said he kept quiet for years because he feared for his safety. But in 2016, he said he met with an FBI agent and the museum’s security director and told them about the visit from Donati, who had been in and out of jail for robbery and hung out with local mobsters
The FBI has never publicly identified Donati as a suspect, but several others have implicated him in the heist.
February 2022: Investigators said they suspect there might be a link between the heist and the 1991 execution-style murder of James Marks, a hustler and convicted bank robber shot to death outside his Lynn home.
“[Marks] had connections to subjects suspected of being involved in the Gardner museum heist,” said Lynn Deputy Police Chief Mark O’Toole. “We don’t know what, if any, role he had. But very likely it was related” to his death.
Amore, the museum’s security director, said investigators have been pursuing the theory that the two crimes may be connected for more than a decade.
He said that a tipster in 2010 claimed that shortly before his death, Marks boasted that some of the stolen paintings were hidden in his apartment on Broad Street.
Shelley Murphy, of the Globe staff, contributed to this report.