Case of missing paintings unsolved after 25 years Empty frames from which thieves took paintings remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A detail of one of the stolen paintings appears at left (AP photos)
Case of missing paintings unsolved after 25 years
Lexile

It's been called the biggest art heist in U.S. history, perhaps the biggest in the world. But 25 years later, the theft of 13 works from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains unsolved.

The theft has spawned books, rumors and speculation about who was responsible - and multiple dead ends.

Yet authorities and museum officials remain hopeful, noting that stolen art almost always gets returned, it just sometimes takes a generation or so.

"Although a quarter-century has passed since the art was stolen, we have always been determined to recover it and we remain optimistic that we will," said Anne Hawley, the Gardner's director, who was in charge at the time of the theft.

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as Boston police officers talked their way into the museum by saying they were responding to a call. They overpowered two security guards, bound them with duct tape and spent 81 minutes pilfering 13 works of art, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet.

Authorities say the artwork is worth perhaps, as much as a half-billion dollars. Museum officials say it's priceless because it cannot be replaced.

Some of the works, including Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," were cut from their frames. Those frames hang empty in the museum to this day. "It is our way of remaining hopeful," museum marketing director Kathy Sharpless said.

Museum officials and police remain baffled by the selection of works stolen. It is thought that the three stolen Rembrandts were targeted, but why more valuable pieces were left behind while less valuable works were taken remains a mystery.

The FBI announced two years ago that they think they know the identities of the thieves, yet the exact whereabouts of the art remains unclear. No names have been disclosed or arrests made.

With the help of foreign law enforcement agencies, the FBI has chased down thousands of leads around the globe, to France, Spain, Britain and Japan. But the answer may be closer to home.

Richard DesLauriers, former agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, said two years ago that investigators believe the thieves belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the mid-Atlantic. They believe the art was taken to Connecticut and Pennsylvania in the years after the theft and offered for sale in Philadelphia. After that, the trail went cold.

"That announcement did generate some good tips, but no recovery," said Geoff Kelly, a member of the FBI's art crime team who has worked on the case for more than 12 years. The local angle remains the most hopeful, he said.

In 2012, the FBI fruitlessly searched the property of a Connecticut mobster they believe knew something about the heist, even using ground-penetrating radar.

The museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of the artwork "in good condition." Art experts have said that for that kind of money, someone will eventually "rat out" the thief.

The government's reward is not monetary. It is offering immunity.

The museum is marking the infamous anniversary by launching a virtual tour on its website entitled "Thirteen Works: Explore the Gardner's Stolen Art." The tour includes high-resolution images of the artwork, archival images, the history of the works and how they were acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Critical thinking challenge: Why did the thieves pretend to be policemen?

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COMMENTS (16)
  • Stephenpa-Fre
    3/24/2015 - 01:09 p.m.

    Its one thing to buy art ,but it is another to steal it. Its also another thing to get away with something that big. How did they do this. Was it planned out or was it just a last minute thing that they wanted to do. Also why would you take something that you cant really sell with out getting questioned. A question i would ask that person is how and why they stool the art work.

  • GigiSylvester-Ste
    3/24/2015 - 01:17 p.m.

    This is crazy! I cannot believe that they havent found out who stole it yet! Their punishment must be pretty good, if they had it for all these years.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    3/24/2015 - 01:28 p.m.

    I can't believe that someone actually felt the need to steal a work of art like this. It is completely disrespectful and even though they have recovered the missing painting, it is still very disturbing.

  • jacobm-Che
    3/26/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    this is very odd to me. the painting have been missing for more then 25 year i'm not that much into art like this but for how much all those paintings are worth i bet their in the black market or something like it or close to it

  • CharismaM
    3/29/2015 - 02:49 p.m.

    I hope that the artwork is returned eventually. It's kind of strange that after 25 years, they still can't find who did it or where the paintings are.

  • JadenW-Kut
    3/29/2015 - 06:17 p.m.

    I think it is awful how someone would have the nerve to steal irreplaceable paintings for what reason exactly? If they were to sell them, the buyers would either rat them out to the FBI or buy ten turn them in. Investing in illegal paintings is horrible for 3 reasons. 1, Only you can see them. 2, you'd have to keep it a secret. 3, art is meant to be shared. not hidden away for 1 person to see all the time. I don't understand how someone could live with their selves after stealing something that took someone ages to make, to share it between cultures, people, centuries, and the future. Only a selfish person would do such a thing.

  • MadisonSch
    3/30/2015 - 01:45 p.m.

    This is crazy. I can not believe that they have not found out who stole it yet. Their punishment must be pretty good, if they had it for all these years.

  • tylerr-Che
    3/30/2015 - 01:46 p.m.

    Somebody will find it one day it might be in plain sight or some where hidden underground or in a safe if someone find it it will probably be worth money.

  • dianaz-Che
    3/30/2015 - 01:52 p.m.

    I don't understand the need for anyone to steal paintings.There's honestly no need for it. These paintings are old and the fact that they mostly always take generations to return is crazy.

  • marcusr-Che
    3/30/2015 - 01:57 p.m.

    I think the painting is long gone by now its been gone for 25 years that's a long time but we will see hopefully if they find it.

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