fb-pixel Skip to main content

3/20/90: Cost of theft coverage described as prohibitive

The 12 art treasures stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Sunday, estimated by museum officials to be worth at least $200 million, were not insured for theft, a museum spokesman said yesterday.

The cost of such insurance would be exorbitant, probably more than the museum’s $2.8 million operating budget, museum spokesman Barry Wanger said.

The news that the landmark museum on the Fenway would not be compensated for the loss of the works, including Jan Vermeer’s “The Concert” and Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” came as investigators worked to piece together details of the robbery, described by authorities as the biggest theft in modern history.


No ransom request was received yesterday, investigators said, but they are continuing to probe theories that the works were taken for ransom or for sale to a black-market collector.

Two men impersonating police officers were admitted to the museum at about 1 a.m. Sunday, overpowered two guards and managed to foil an alarm system, police said. Gardner officials and other museum security specialists called the alarm system “state of the art.”

Police, the FBI and museum officials refused to divulge the names of the two guards or the maintenance worker who found the guards handcuffed and gagged at 7 a.m.

The Gardner’s alarm system, unlike those in some other museums, does not automatically notify the police when activated by a disturbance, sources familiar with the investigation told the Globe. Thus, when the thieves overpowered the guards they were able to deactivate the web of electronic devices that protect the works, including individual alarms on each work of art, sources said.

Security specialists said yesterday that similar systems, in which alarms are reported to a guard station rather than directly to the police, are in many American museums.

In addition, sources told the Globe that:


- Investigators are trying to determine whether the thieves had tried to get in two weeks earlier by staging a disturbance outside the museum.

At least three people took part in the apparently staged disturbance two weeks ago outside the Gardner in the early-morning hours, sources said.

One person pounded on the door -- the same door that the thieves used in the robbery Sunday -- and begged to be let in to get away from attackers, sources added.

But, they said, when the guard on duty refused the allow the man in, the man got into a car with the two men who supposedly had attacked him and the trio drove off.

Investigators are interviewing all of the museum’s guards to determine whether any of the men who staged the disturbance match the descriptions of the two men who robbed the museum, and to find out if there were any other suspicious attempts by unidentified individuals to gain entrance to the museum after closing.

- Two men posing as police officers had tried to gain entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts, the area’s largest museum and most valuable collection, late in the afternoon on Jan. 15, when it was closed for Martin Luther King Day.

“They asked one of our guards to let them in, that they were responding to a call, and our guard said, ‘I’m going to have to get my supervisor,’ and when he did, the cops left,” said William McAuliffe, chief of security for the MFA.


McAuliffe said because of the Gardner theft, he would try to determine whether the two men who responded to the Museum of Fine Arts were, in fact, Boston police officers.

“It could have been a legitimate call,” said McAuliffe, “but in light of what happened, we want to know for sure.”

Boston police said yesterday they were working to determine whether any of their officers made the call at the MFA, which is showing priceless works by French painter Claude Monet.

- Guards at the Gardner do not carry weapons. Although museum sources have not disclosed whether the guards on duty at the time of the theft were armed, former guards said no one but security chief Lyle Grindle carries a weapon.

The Gardner did not believe arms were necessary because police were only a short distance away, they said. However, the thieves were armed with mace and carried handcuffs, sources said.

- The thieves exhibited working knowledge of the museum’s security system by removing videotape cassettes that would have shown their faces and movements.

Such knowledge would suggest inside knowledge of the museum’s security apparatus, a security specialist said.

Steve Keller, a national consultant on museum security from Delray, Fla., said in an interview yesterday that the Gardner’s system was up-to-date and extensive.

“It’s a strange case,” he said. “It could have been anybody. They have a good security system there, good electronic equipment. Someone made a human error and let someone in. It all goes back to the human element.”


Guards at the Gardner are commonly in their late teens or early 20s, and many are art students from nearby schools and universities, sources said. The turnover rate among guards is high, they added.

Keller said inexperience and inadequate training for security guards is a problem at museums across the country and may have played a role in the Gardner robbery.

“In countries like Sweden, it’s a career position,” Keller said of museum security. “Here, you leave guard work and move on to McDonald’s. We have to take guard work more seriously.”

Guards in the United States generally are not paid enough, do not receive enough training and are not mature enough to handle the demands of the job, he said.

“I was a cop,” he added. “If two guys come to the door saying they’re cops, I’d say, ‘I want to check with your dispatcher.’ A younger or less experienced man might feel intimidated.

“This is a problem with private security all around the country. Just think if this happened at a nuclear power plant or an airport.”

Keller said the museum’s decision not to have alarms automatically notifying the police was sensible, given that false alarms would be numerous.

An automatic report to the police would also make it difficult for guards to patrol the museum for possible fires, a far greater threat to an old museum like the Gardner than theft.

“You can’t have the high level of intense motion detection that museums like if it goes to the police station,” he said. “It’s like having a smoke alarm in the kitchen. You want it there, but it goes off all the time.”


Karen Winter, who served as a guard at the Gardner four years ago, said guard jobs at the museum were popular sources of part-time income for students.

“We’d just watch for people who look suspicious, see if people were just hanging around there,” she said. “You had a guard in every room and a few others with walkie talkies.”

Winter described Grindle, the director of security, as a hard-working professional and generous boss.

“He’s the best boss I ever had,” she said. “He works Thanksgiving and Christmas himself to let all his guards go home to their families. He’s a professional. This must be just terrible for him.”

As news of the heist spread yesterday, Gardner officials began receiving condolence calls from around the globe, museum director Anne Hawley said.

In an emotional news conference yesterday afternoon, Hawley said the theft has devastated the New England art world and made her feel “as if I have experienced the death of a dearest friend.”

In addition to the Vermeer and the Rembrandt, the stolen works included “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” also by Rembrandt, a self-portrait etching by Rembrandt, “Chez Tortoni,” by 19th century French master Edouard Manet, ‘‘Landscape with an Obelisk,” by Govaert Flinck, five works by Edgar Degas and the museum’s oldest piece, a Chinese beaker from the Shang Dynasty.

“A part of our heritage has been stolen from us,” Hawley said. “It was a barbaric act.”

“I would characterize it as a tragedy,” she added. “These are priceless works and they cannot be sold, so a dollar value is irrelevent.”

Nonetheless, the fact that the museum did not have theft insurance surprised some observers, who had earlier suggested that ransom through an insurance company could have been a motive for the robbery.

Wanger, the Gardner’s spokesman, said the permanent collection was covered for damage to individual art works that occurred during restoration or conservation attempts, but not for theft. He said he didn’t know if the museum was covered for fire damage.

Wanger said that even if the works had been insured, the money collected for them could not have been used to add to the museum’s collection, according to provisions of the will of the museum’s eccentric founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Gardner’s will also stipulated that paintings could not be moved from where she left them, which sources said had in the past presented difficulties for the museum’s security force.

But yesterday, most security specialists were focusing on what Keller called “the human element.”

Michael Snyder, regional manager of ADT, the nation’s largest provider of security systems for museums, said, “Normally, in a place like a museum, with hundreds of millions of dollars, the electronics back up the guards who back up the electronics.”

No system is impenetrable, Snyder said.

A man delivering a bouquet of flowers to the museum yesterday said he had made stops there previously and was let in a side entrance without any checking.

“I just showed them the flowers and they said, ‘Go right in,’ “ he said. ‘‘If I wanted to rob a place, I would just bring in a bunch of flowers.”

Gardner officials said the museum will re-open tomorrow.