Rethinking the Boston Heist: Let’s Catch Today’s Art Thieves

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In 1903, Boston philanthropist and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner achieved her dream. She had spent years buying masterpieces, shrewdly negotiating to stretch her fortune to accumulate one of the world’s greatest collections of art for the benefit of the Boston public. At last, her museum was open.

She had designed a palatial home both for the art and herself, and lived on the fourth floor of what became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway area until her death in 1924. More than 60 years after her death, in the early morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers rang the museum bell.

One of the two security guards on duty let the men in after they told him they were investigating a possible crime. Instead of investigating, they committed a crime of their own, overpowering both guards and tying them up in the basement. The thieves took the security camera tapes with them while they left, but the museum’s motion sensors kept a record of the leisurely progress they made around the building. They spent 81 minutes in the museum, even making two trips to their car to carry the 13 artworks they took, including paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Manet.

These works are estimated to be worth $500 million today, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) calls their theft the largest property crime in American history.

Since the theft, countless investigative resources have been deployed to find the missing art. The FBI, the Boston police, the museum, and innumerable journalists and amateur detectives continue to scrutinize every shred of evidence and theorize about every possible outcome for the art. Thousands of tips have poured in from people who have claimed to know the whereabouts of the paintings, probably inspired by the possibility of claiming the rewards the museum has offered now up to $5 million. But not a single one of the works has reappeared.

This year, the 25th anniversary of the theft, brought renewed public attention to the missing art. In April, the FBI arrested, on unrelated weapons charges, a man associated with local organized crime groups who they claim was involved in the theft. According to authorities, he boasted to an undercover agent that he could sell him some of the missing art. This information revived the hopes of those who believe that the artworks are still hidden away, perhaps as a sort of retirement plan or insurance policy for the thieves, who could cash in on them or offer to trade information about their location in return for leniency if convicted of another crime.

Others think that the art might still be floating around the criminal underworld, used as a form of currency for exchanges of drugs and guns. Still others think they adorn the lair of some secretive and unscrupulous collector.

But I think that the artwork was destroyed long ago. Comprehensive studies of art criminals reveal a very different picture than we might expect. Far from being masterminds with elaborate plans and expertise in art, many of those who have been interviewed after stealing art say that they had no idea what they were going to do with the works after the theft.

These criminals know that artworks can sell for millions of dollars and see an opportunity in the poor security that museums, with chronically strained budgets, often have. The criminals think that they will seize this opportunity and figure out what to do with the goods later. The most hapless ones are caught the first time they try to sell the stolen art.

Who’s going to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for art without calling in an authenticating expert who will recognize and report it?

Other criminals face a hard choice when they wake up to the barrage of media reports that follow a successful museum theft. Knowing that it is impossible to sell the work, some choose to abandon it, calling in its location to the police. They know that the heat will be off once the art is recovered.

But others make a far darker choice.

They or their accomplices destroy the stolen art, hoping to obliterate the evidence of their crime. Thus, for example, in 2002, when compulsive art thief Stéphane Breitwieser was arrested, his mother destroyed $1.5 billion Euros worth of the art he had stolen for his private collection, throwing some objects in a nearby canal and stuffing others down her garbage disposal.

In 2012, a pair of Romanian art thieves made off with six paintings, including one by Picasso, from a Rotterdam museum; when they were arrested, the mother of one of them burnt the works.

And these are just examples of the destructions we know about. Only a low percentage of stolen masterworks are ever recovered; and so, many other thieves must have been more successful in concealing their crimes.

I certainly hope that I am wrong, and that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recovers the works that Gardner spent so much time and care collecting. But thinking about Gardner, with her mission to enrich the visitors to her museum, makes me even more convinced that this theft has already received more than its fair share of resources.

Artworks face a number of threats today. Museum security continues to be underfunded and inadequate. Natural disasters can damage or destroy art at any time, such as the many monuments of the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage site, now in rubble after the recent earthquake.

And ISIS and other terrorist groups are funding their conflicts by looting and smuggling antiquities in Syria, Iraq, and other sites.

Editors Note: To learn more about the smuggling of antiquities by ISIS, watch “Stealing the Past” an episode on “Criminal Justice Matters.”

We should be devoting our resources to fighting these threats, not to continuing a hopeless search for artworks which, though masterpieces, were probably destroyed long ago, when a couple of thieves who had thought of a clever plan to steal them realized that they had run out of ideas for getting rid of them.

Erin Thompson Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Music, John Jay College. Her website is She is the author of the forthcoming To Own the Past: How Collectors Reveal, Shape and Destroy History (Yale University Press). Her Twitter handle is @artcrimeprof. She welcomes readers comments.

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