Earlier this week, the F.B.I. announced that it had identified the two men who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990, in the biggest art theft in American history. The F.B.I. said the criminals, whom it did not identify, had most likely moved their loot to Connecticut or the Philadelphia area.
Twenty-three years may seem like an inordinate amount of time to solve a burglary, but the Gardner case has actually come a long way from the days when it sometimes seemed to sit on the F.B.I.’s investigative back burner — and the robbery has done a lot to change the way that museums protect their art.
The robbery occurred just after midnight on March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as police officers appeared at the side entrance to the museum. There had been “a disturbance on the grounds,” the men told the night guard through an intercom.
One of the guards buzzed the men into the building, and after tying up the two watchmen, the thieves essentially had the run of one of the world’s most beautiful museums for more than an hour. Mrs. Gardner, the art collector and philanthropist who founded the institution, was devoted to the idea that art was powerfully redemptive, and she built intimate galleries to showcase her collection. She felt so strongly about the museum that in her will she insisted that nothing be changed in the galleries, not even the plaster cast of the composer Franz Liszt’s hand. Today the galleries are arranged just as they were when Mrs. Gardner died, in 1924.
On that evening, the thieves moved through the narrow hallways, past the Han dynasty bears and Louis Kronberg’s oil painting “La Gitana.” They ignored the 18th-century Indian bookstand and the 15th-century Italian fresco of Hercules.
They went for some of the museum’s crown jewels, snagging Vermeer’s “Concert” along with three Rembrandts, a Manet and a Degas. The two thieves didn’t seem to be particularly respectful toward art — they sliced two of the Rembrandts out of their frames — but they did manage to sneak away with a haul worth as much as $500 million today.
Over the years, it hasn’t seemed as if federal investigators have always made the case a top priority. When I first started reporting on the theft, for instance, the museum’s director, Anne Hawley, suggested that she had not always been satisfied with the bureau’s commitment to the case. Ms. Hawley, the director since 1989, said that the first agent assigned to the case seemed very green. “Why didn’t the F.B.I. have the capacity to assign a senior-level person?” she asked me in 2007. “Why was it not considered something that needed immediate and high-level attention?”
When the theft occurred, the museum’s security was lax by today’s standards. While the Gardner’s protections were not particularly bad for a modest-size house museum at that time, one of the guards who worked the night of the theft later admitted to having smoked marijuana before arriving for work. The museum also lacked theft insurance, which prevented it from offering a major reward immediately after the burglary.
But these problems were not limited to the Gardner. The idea that art theft is not quite a serious crime has a strange hold in some quarters. Over the years, the F.B.I.’s prioritization of terrorism after 9/11, not to mention numerous violent crimes, also may help account for the length of the investigation. But when crooks steal masterpieces, they steal part of our culture and civilization.
You can replace a wallet, an iPod, even a diamond necklace, but not a Rembrandt. The art world knows this. The Gardner offered a $1 million reward a few days after the theft occurred, and in 1997, it raised the reward to $5 million, believed to be the largest ever offered by a private institution. A few years ago, the museum also brought in a new head of security, Anthony Amore, who has become obsessed with the case. He keeps an electronic copy of his investigation files with him at all times, even outside of work.
Museum security has changed too. The Gardner has significantly upgraded its protections, and because of the theft, the American Association of Museums revamped its guidelines, recommending that institutions be more careful about whom they let in after hours. In 1994, at the museum’s urging, Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped pass a law that made it a federal crime to steal, receive or dispose of any cultural object worth more than $100,000.
The statute of limitations for breaking into the museum has expired, but prosecutors could potentially use the 1994 law to convict someone for possession of the stolen art today. (That said, the museum’s top priority is recovering the art.)
The F.B.I. has also significantly ramped up its efforts to recover stolen art. In 2004, the agency created a national art theft team, which has more than a dozen agents assigned to regions across the country. The bureau also has two agents working on the Gardner case, and last year, they made a high-profile raid on the house of a Connecticut mobster. Since the announcement on Monday, and the increased attention on an F.B.I. Web site devoted to the Gardner theft, tips and new leads have been pouring in.
As for the men who robbed the museum, there’s been some good evidence over the years regarding their identities. In my book on the theft, I pointed the finger at the Boston mobster David Turner. As part of my reporting, I examined F.B.I. files that indicated that Mr. Turner was an early suspect, and he bears a strong resemblance to the composite drawing made of one of the thieves. In a letter to me, Mr. Turner denied any role in the theft, but he also told me that if I were to put his picture on my book’s cover, I would sell more copies.
More important, there are signs that the paintings may hang on the walls of the museum again. At the news conference on Monday, the F.B.I. announced that in the years after the theft, someone took the stolen Gardner art to Connecticut and Philadelphia and offered it up for sale. This suggests that the canvases might still be in good condition.
“I think we’re all optimistic that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place,” the United States attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said. Let’s hope she’s right.
This piece first appeared in the New York Times.