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And now, with no further ado, our first Mystery Nibble of 2021 involves my favorite genre of crime: heists!
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, one of the world's greatest art heists ever, happened more than thirty years ago. We don’t know who did it. We don’t know where the art is today. We don’t know.. ANYTHING! (okay we know some things.)
So let’s gather the crew, case the joint, and hit the museum. It’s a smash and grab job.
You'd need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons. - Rusty, Ocean’s 11
On Sunday March 18th, 1990, two men sat parked in a hatchback on Place Road, about a hundred feet from the museum’s entrance. They were disguised as police officers.
Meanwhile, the two security guards on duty that night, Rick Abath and Randy Hestand, were completing their nightly rounds. At around 1:00 am, the two “police officers” (aka them thieves), drove to the side entrance, rang the buzzer, and talked to Abath on the intercom. They pretended to be responding to a disturbance and demanded to be let in. Abath did exactly that (suckerrrrr).
The thieves then handcuffed the guards, wrapped duct tape around their heads and eyes (kinky), and led them to the basement. They attached the guards to a steam pipe and workbench and went to work snagging the paintings.
Then they took the video cassettes that recorded their entrance on the closed-circuit cameras and walked out with the goods.
Okay, so what was the take?
The stolen works were originally purchased by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924). The choice of paintings stolen remains puzzling to experts since more valuable artwork was untouched.
The following pieces of art were taken:
Although the art has been estimated for some time to be worth $500m, the skyrocketing art market has led some experts to raise the figure significantly. One dealer in Old Master’s art says they’re worth “at least $1 billion,” and that the Vermeer [The Concert] alone “is worth nearly $500m.”
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. - Henry Hill, Goodfellas
The guards and witnesses in the street described one thief as about 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m) to 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) in his late 30s with a medium build, and the other as 6 feet 0 inches (1.83 m) to 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m) in his early 30s with a heavier build. Here are our possible suspects:
Rick Abath: One of the security guards. He opened a side museum door briefly that night which was perceived as a potential signal to the thieves. His excuse was that he often lets his friends inside to hang out but none came that night (sure, bud. Sure.)
Whitey Bulger: Powerful Boston crime boss during that era. His ties to Boston Police made some think he had helped the thieves disguise themselves.
Anonymous letter writer: In 1994, museum director Anne Hawley received an anonymous letter from someone who claimed to be attempting to negotiate a return of the artwork. After a back and forth with coded messaging with the FBI/Boston Globe, the writer explained that they needed time to evaluate their options, but Hawley never heard from the writer again. (Hmmm)
Boston Mafia (the Merlino gang): The FBI was pretty sure they found the winner here but could never locate any hard evidence. (I’m picturing Tony Soprano gifting a Rembrandt to one of his mistresses now…)
Bobby Donati: An art thief named Myles J. Conner Jr. pointed the finger at Donati and even claimed he and Donati had previously cased the Boston museum. Donati died in 1991 in a gang war and did not match the physical description of the robbers (it was thought he was behind it but didn’t do it himself).
Want more? We got you.
In January, the museum indefinitely extended their $10 million reward for anyone who helps recover the missing masterpieces. Perhaps if you take a dive into some of the longer content below you may find them yourself...(If you do, Mystery Nibbles gets a fee. That’s the rule.)
“Last Seen” is a wonderful and detailed podcast on this mystery. Well worth a listen. Fascinating case.
The Art Newspaper did a nice write up on this as well
Here’s a more detailed description that includes images and descriptions of each of the stolen works
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