Feed Your True Crime Obsession with This Interactive Art Heist Tour

At Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, solving the mystery could score you $10 million.

Hmm... something seems off here. | Boston Globe/Getty Images
Hmm... something seems off here. | Boston Globe/Getty Images

In many ways the Dutch Room of Boston’s transportive Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is typical: lit by arched Venetian windows overlooking a verdant inner courtyard, and tastefully stuffed with Gardner’s handpicked collection. Amid period chairs and cabinets, candelabras and other trinkets, European portraits play dramatically with dark and light. Over by the entrance, a lone Rembrandt gazes out. It’s an early self-portrait painted at just 23, gauzy scarf around his neck, textured feather lilting off his pillowy cap. This is the painting that inspired the entire museum—after acquiring it, Gardner focused on procuring masterpieces, in 1898 transforming a former swamp into a palace for her prizes.

But here is where things get bizarre. On the wall across from the Rembrandt are two large empty frames, displaying nothing but the satiny Baroque wallpaper underneath. To the right, another set of empty frames sit propped back-to-back on a desk. On the left, a stamp-sized void beckons from the side of a cabinet.

Over strains of maudlin violin on the audio tour, the museum’s director of security, Anthony Amore, explains the scene: “You’re about to hear the story of a horrific robbery that deprived the Gardner Museum—and you, the public—of some of the greatest masterpieces in America.”

Prestigious paintings were once in those empty frames; they're now remnants of a nefarious crime. This theft-centric tour follows the footsteps of the duo that committed it, with intimate details of the night.

And there's a bonus: If visitors realize they have evidence to help recover the art, it could mean a whopping $10 million reward.

The museum's gorgeous courtyard. | LnP images/Shutterstock

The heist

You may have heard the story before, from the dozens of newspaper articles, the 2018 WBUR and Boston Globe podcast Last Seen, or perhaps Netflix’s four-part 2021 documentary, This is a Robbery. And if you’re from Boston, odds are you can probably recite the basics by heart. In the wee hours following St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, March 18, 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was the victim of the biggest art heist in modern history. Unlike the movies, the thieves didn’t drop in from the ceiling, rappel down walls, or even shut down alarm systems with fine-honed hacking techniques. These guys? They just walked right on in.

At 1:24 am, two men masquerading as Boston police officers—complete with mustaches—announced themselves over the exterior intercom, claiming to be responding to reports of a disturbance. After getting buzzed in (against protocol) they overpowered two young security guards, haphazardly duct-taped their eyes and mouths, and handcuffed them to pipes in the basement. Then they got down to business.

13 pieces were lifted that night, including two Rembrandts, a Vermeer, six sketches by Degas, and a Manet, weighing in at a grand total of $500 million. The case remains unsolved, but if you’re the one to help crack it, you could be looking at that $10 million reward.

Launched in 2020, the museum’s audio tour of the theft commemorates the 30th anniversary of the crime, aiming to keep the details fresh in the public’s minds in hopes of finally making an arrest. Practical, sure. But it’s also ridiculously fun. With a route obtained from tripped motion sensors, guests retrace the crooks’ steps, traveling through the museum in search of specific pieces while also taking note of treasures found along the way.

If you’re looking to learn about that storied night, you’ll find plenty of information to quench your curiosity. But if you just want to know what it feels like to rob a museum and get away with the steal of the century, consider this your immersive playbook.

Missing: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee | Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

The tour

Amore’s voice is sure yet forlorn as he narrates. Hired in 2005, it’s his primary job to solve this baffling case. Waves crash in the background as he describes in vivid detail what’s missing from the first large frame: Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm in the Sea of Galilee.

It’s Rembrandt’s only seascape. But beyond that it’s simply mesmerizing. The sky is churning, the sea chaotic. Men cling for their lives. And in the middle of the work, a familiar face—Rembrandt painted himself in, calmly looking out from the ship. If the painting still hung where it should the artist would be making eye contact with his 23 year-old self portrait across the room.

The other large frame once held another Rembrandt, this one a portrait of a couple. As described in the audio, the thieves placed both pieces on the floor and crudely sliced the paintings out of their frames. “There are deep gashes on the wood supports around the edges of the canvas,” Amore continues. “They leave those supports behind. It’s really a horrific crime scene.”

When people speak of this robbery, they usually point to two pieces as the biggest losses. One is Galilee. The second is Vermeer’s mysterious The Concert, as only 36 or so of his works remain intact today. In the Dutch Room, the painting’s empty shell sits over to the side atop a desk. With it, the thieves were unnecessarily dramatic, taking it to the middle of the room, turning it facedown, and, after removing the canvas, letting the rest crash down to the floor. Crime scene photos show the frame laying on the ground, surrounded by shattered glass.

After an incongruous pause to wrangle a 12th century bronze Chinese vessel, then unscrewing a small Rembrandt etching from its casing, it’s through the hall—dark after hours—past the museum’s Early Italian Room and vibrant, red-walled Raphael Room, completely ignoring works by the Renaissance master. The Short Gallery came next, where they liberated Pierre-Philippe Thomire's Napoleonic eagle finial alongside five drawings by French Impressionist Edgar Degas.

Then lastly, back down the stairs to the Blue Room. It’s speculated that at 2:45 am, the thieves removed Chez Tortoni, a portrait by Édouard Manet of a dapper man in a top hat. (No alarms were triggered, making it impossible to know the exact time it went missing.) After taking it, the intruders left the empty frame on the security desk.

The escapade took a full 81 minutes. To put that in perspective, most art heists last about three minutes from start to finish. But don’t worry, the abbreviated tour only runs about 22.

The thieves went right past the Raphael painting on the left. | MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images

The mystery

There have been theories about who did it, of course. Plenty of evidence points to an inside job: the leisurely time spent, the knowledge of secret passageways, and the precision of the route. The tape job on one of the guards, music student Rick Abath—the same one who buzzed in the looters—was hilariously inefficient. Abath also reportedly had beef with the head of security, so leaving that last frame on the desk would have been a particularly telling touch.

Noted art thief Myles Connor has aroused suspicion– his repertoire includes a stolen Rembrandt and in an interview he’s admitted to casing the museum and fantasizing about copping the 12th century Chinese vase. There’s also screenwriter Brian Michael McDevitt, a kid from the North Shore who posed as a Vanderbilt and attempted a similar robbery in Glens Falls, New York. His were the first fingerprints sent to the FBI for comparison after the Gardner heist.

Many theories revolve around the mob, where, for better or for worse, all of the suspects are dead. Recently, though, Amore told Boston 25 that they’re examining the cold case murder of a mobster named Jimmy Marks who was gunned down in 1991. A tipster told investigators that Marks was bragging that not only was he in possession of some of the stolen artwork, but he’d hidden it.

Some strong evidence, but, alas, no recovered paintings. That’s where you—and this immersive walking tour—comes in. Three decades later, the thieves still haven’t come forward, but there are generations of museum-goes out there who may have seen the stolen goods in passing. Maybe someone will hear Amore wax poetic about Chez Tortoni and say, “Hey, that guy in the top hat is hanging over my grandma’s couch.’ Or maybe they’ll finally realize why their uncle insists on showing off the same 10-inch bronze eagle at every family gathering (that Napoleonic finial, by the way, comes with its own separate $100,000 reward). Visitors with information about the stolen artworks are encouraged to contact Amore at 617-278-5114 or email reward@gardnermuseum.org.

Either way, pretending to pull off the world’s biggest art heist is a pretty entertaining way to pass an afternoon. Especially when you get to waltz out the front doors afterwards without facing a single consequence. Kind of like the thieves… for now.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She always thought she wasn't stealthy enough to be an art thief. But she could definitely do what these guys did.