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This Boston company uses augmented reality to view artwork stolen from Gardner Museum

Gardner Museum -- Hacking the Heist.
Gardner Museum -- Hacking the Heist.

Despite persistent efforts — and the prospect of a hefty reward — the whereabouts of the artwork stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum nearly three decades ago remain a mystery. But that doesn’t mean people should be forever barred from seeing those famous paintings hanging on the museum’s walls as they once did.

Cuseum, a company based in the Seaport District that uses technology to enhance visitor engagement at museums, launched an independent project last week called “Hacking the Heist,” which relies on “the magic of augmented reality” to “return” the pilfered masterpieces to their empty frames.


Here’s how it works: When a camera on a smartphone or tablet that’s loaded with the company’s app is aimed at the spaces where the paintings were, the images appear on the screen, as if they were actually on the wall.

“It’s very seamless in that there’s no buttons or complicated interface,” said Brendan Ciecko, chief executive and founder of Cuseum. “You’re literally holding up your device and overlaying the paintings that would have previously hung in the frames.” Apple’s ARKit was used to create the app.

On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers gained entry to the museum and made off with 13 paintings valued at $500 million. Sunday marked 28 years since the theft. The museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of the art.

Ciecko said as “art lovers, and technologists, and Bostonians,” the company thought the project would be a captivating opportunity to experiment with augmented reality. “We want to inspire people to think about how art and technology intersect and plays a role, and we have seen a lot of uses around augmented reality,” he said.

For now, the app only displays Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” and “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” but Cuseum plans to add more. Along with the app, Cuseum also created a website with information about the heist. A Gardner Museum spokeswoman said the museum was not involved with Cuseum’s experimental app, which currently is not available to the public. When asked if the museum plans to offer it to visitors, she added, “Not at this time.”


But Ciecko sees the project one day expanding and getting in the hands of patrons. “When we get excited about something,” he said, “we throw a lot of energy into it.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.