Unsolved: Gardner Museum Heist

On the night of March 18th 1990 at 11.45pm, 2 security guards arrived to work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It seemed like a normal night; the overbearing sense of boredom from spending the next seven hours sat at a desk and patrolling the uneventful museum hung over the pair. The usual night security guard had called in sick so one of the two had to cover this shift. The unnamed guard usually worked days, so this was his first time entering the museum in the pitch black.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was built in 1901. Isabella herself moved into the museum on the fourth floor where there was a private living area. Between 1901 and 1902, Isabella spent all of her time decorating the walls of this new piece of architecture, adorning them with her personal collection of art, which she took great pride in. The museum officially opened in 1903 and it was a grand place to come and view some of the most valuable pieces of artwork ever known. Isabella died in 1924 and left her museum, declaring it was “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever”.

Richard Abath and his fellow colleague started their shift at midnight. It was usual for the two guards to split their duties, one manning the security desk with CCTV, panic button to alarm the police and to be able to let people in, while the other one patrols the museum to make sure there is no suspicious activity.

Richard had not long begun his rounds, ending up in the Blue Room of the first floor. Motion detectors at 12.27am showed Abath’s movement in the Blue Room. 17 minutes later at 12.44am, the fire alarm system goes off in the museum. Abath abandons his rounds – still in the Blue Room – and goes up to the third floor, where the alarm is going off, to find no fire, thus goes down to the basement to see what was going on. It turned out the fire was a false alarm, Abath blew a sigh of relief and carried back where he left off, still suspicious as to why it went off.

It was the early hours of Sunday morning, around 12.45am, four kids came out on to Palace Road after leaving a party that they were attending. Drunk from excitement, music and beer, they stumbled into the road to see two policemen parked in a red Dodge Daytona on the side of the road. The kids were underage and started to worry that they were going to be handed in to their parents if they didn’t scarper, so they left leaving no trace of themselves in to the night.

At 12.53am, Abath ended up back in the Blue Room after investigating the commotion and within eleven minutes, he was at the employee entrance to the museum. It was on record that Abath had opened and closed this door, then proceeded to take his shift on the desk, monitoring CCTV.

20 minutes later at 1.24am, Abath’s night partner was making his way around the museum when two policemen buzzed the intercom at the employee entrance. It should be noted that it is completely against protocol for the museum security staff to let any one in at all at night, even policemen. It is stated that, unless you have personally summoned the police, for whatever reason, you should get their name and badge number and call the local precinct to confirm why they are here. Abath did not do this. Abath let them in and they came to the front desk. The policemen stated that they had come after hearing of a disturbance and came to investigate. Abath thought this odd but since the fire alarm had gone off, he let it go.

It wasn’t until one of the policemen said “You look familiar; I think we have a default warrant out on you. Come out here and show us some I.D”, that Abath had a slight inkling that something wasn’t right, yet still exited the security desk – with the only police panic button inside. Suddenly one policeman hastened towards Abath and arrested him. During FBI interviews, he admitted that he thought it was a bit odd that he hadn’t been searched before being arrested; he had seen enough crime and cop shows to know they have to search you first.

Abath was ordered to summon his other security guard, to which he did, and the same fate befell the unsuspecting, usual day guard. The policemen admitted at this point “You are not being arrested. This is robbery. Don’t get in our way and you won’t get hurt”.

The robbers taped over the guard’s mouths and heads, took them to the basement and taped them to a pole. This happened between 1.24am and 1.48am. 24 minutes.

During the next 57 minutes, the robbers bustled around the museum, setting off very few motion detectors, making it hard for the security team to know what their exact steps were. The thieves stole a total of 13 artworks: ‘The Concert’ by Vermeer; ‘A Lady and Gentleman in Black’,’ Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee’, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by Rembrandt; ‘Landscape with Obelisk’ by Flinck; ‘Chez Tortoni’ by Manet; 5 Works on Paper by Degas; a bronze eagle finial from a Napoleonic flag and an ancient Chinese Gu (bronze beaker from Shang dynasty).

Once the guards had been dealt with, the motion detectors went off on the second floor to show the robbers went up the main staircase and into the Dutch room where they stole the Rembrandts, Vermeer and Flinck paintings and the Chinese Gu. They then split up, with one robber going to the Short gallery to take the 5 degas sketches and the bronze eagle from a flag – trying to take the whole flag proved difficult so the thief just took the eagle instead. The other robber was lost at this point as motion sensors seemed to be faulty this night.

2.27am. Both robbers go back down the staircase then 13 minutes later, the employee door was opened for a minute and again at 2.45am, was opened for another minute.

It wasn’t until the morning guards showed up, bleary eyed, ready for their shift of the day that they noticed something wasn’t right because the two night guards, who were supposed to be manning the security desk to let them in, clearly weren’t there since the day guards had been ringing and were still standing outside at 7am.

The day guards rang their deputy security director, Larry O’Brien and he came to let them in and have a look around. Police were called at 8.16am and it wasn’t until after the police turned up and conducted a thorough search, that they found the two night guards duct taped to poles.

The thieves had destroyed CCTV evidence, stole the hard, printed copy of the motion sensor logs and sped off into the night and left with $500 million worth of art, unknowing that the motion sensors were backed up on a hard drive.

Police and FBI investigations were proving hard. After the robbery, Abath had admitted that he often turned up to work drunk or stoned since he was a musician by day and usually came to work after playing a gig or jamming with his friends all day. The only trouble is that Abath also said that this was the one day that he turned up to work completely sober. The two security guards on duty that night both explained to the police that they couldn’t remember what the assailants looked like except for that it looked as thought they were wearing wax moustaches.

13 years later, it came out that the thieves had actually told the pair that if they don’t tell the police anything and keep their mouths shut, that they would get a reward in one year. Whether this came to be or not hasn’t been disclosed but this detail was not mentioned to the police at the time, nor were any details of the men’s appearance.

Since the motion detectors weren’t operating properly in the museum at the time, it had been noted as strange that while the robbers were detected in the Dutch room and the Short gallery, they weren’t once shown to be in the Blue room, where ‘Chez Tortoni’ by Manet, was stolen, when around an hour before, Abath had been in that same room with detectors showing his movement.

The Manet had been carefully taken out of it’s frame and left on the security desk chair.

FBI have kept this case as high profile, considering there is a large amount of high value cultural items at stake and have a few theories as to who took or could be in control of these priceless pieces.

First of all, the FBI think that the robbers might not have had a good knowledge of the art world since the most expensive painting in the gallery by Titian on the third floor remained untouched. This could have been a list given to the robbers by someone higher up their chain, either in the outside world or within the museum itself.

For example, how would the average person know: that the security was being updated at the time; that the only panic button for the police was behind the security desk; that the motion detectors weren’t working particularly well; where the employee entrance was; where the basement was; where the alarm system was to turn it off when they set off a sensor for getting too close to a painting? There seemed to be too many coincidences for it to be a completely random attack.

A suspect the FBI have been on to is that of Robert Gentile. Robert was a petty con and known associate of the mafia. Gentile became a person of interest in 2010 when a Boston mobster named Robert Guarente died and his wife came forward to the FBI explaining that she actually saw Guarente give one of the stolen pieces to Gentile. Gentile never confirmed this and always denied any involvement in the heist however during a polygraph test, it shows he wasn’t telling the truth about his innocence regarding the robbery that day. This could be as little involvement as that he simply knew it was going to happen to that he was one of the thieves that carried this out.

The FBI raided Gentile’s house and recovered police memorabilia, a large stack of cash and a list naming the exact pieces of art which were stolen from the museum and next to each name was the price expected to get from the black market. Gentile was arrested in February 2017 on unrelated charges, for illegally selling firearms to a convicted murderer and was released March 2019 due to good behaviour. However, the 82-year-ols is now in poor health and bound to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. During his time in prison, he had chatted to other inmates about the stolen pieces and had once also told an undercover detective that he was able to acquire two of the stolen paintings and was attempting to negotiate a price of half a million dollars for each painting but when questioned, Gentile continued to deny knowing anything.

FBI had other suspects during the 29-year long investigation of the heist, not fully suspecting Richard Abath but not fully discounting him either, but most of the other suspects have now passed away.

 

Will we ever find out who stole $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Guard Museum?