On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers robbed Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of $500 million worth of prized artwork. On Wednesday, the lawyer for Robert V. Gentile said the Connecticut mobster long suspected by federal authorities of having information on the whereabouts of the masterpieces had died. Gentile continued to deny he knew anything about the missing masterpieces in the weeks leading up to his death, according to his lawyer.
Though the heist went down decades ago, it remains a mystery today. Thirteen valuable works were stolen, including a Vermeer, three Rembrandts — including his only seascape — five Degas drawings, 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 wonder if that was the thieves’ first attempt, or a test run.
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, known to be Richard Abath, opened the door to allow in two men disguised as police officers. The men then allegedly handcuffed and duct-taped Abath and a fellow guard before robbing the museum. They smashed the artwork out of 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 past 2:30 a.m. The guards tied up in the basement wouldn’t be found until police were called at 8:15 a.m.
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.
2010: FBI investigators trekked to Maine to search the home of notorious Boston gangster 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 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: Gentile was convicted for illegally selling prescription drugs and possessing guns, silencers, and ammunition.
March 2019: Gentile was released from prison after serving four and a half years. “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, his attorney, Ryan McGuigan, confirmed to the Globe.