History

How the Gardner Heist Shocked America’s Art Scene

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There is something almost mythical about the world of fine art. When amazing works of art are created, we gather around and stare in wonder. When those same works of art mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night, well, that’s an entirely different story. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Museum is located in Boston. The building hosts Mrs. Gardner’s incredible art collection which includes works by Zorn, Whistler, and Sargent. The mansion itself is equally fascinating as it was designed by William T. Sears in 1903. However, for all the history that the building possesses, what is missing has people talking the most. On March 18th, 1990, two mysterious strangers impersonated policemen in order to steal 13 of the most valuable paintings in the world.

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The brazen art heist, dubbed the Gardner Heist, has baffled law enforcement to this day. The crime involved two thieves dressing up as police officers. The men then forced themselves into the museum after hours, overpowering the local guards. In the dead of night, the two thieves stole more than $500 million worth of art. From Vermeer and Rembrandt to Manet, Flinck, and Degas, an entire collection of historical artwork vanished into thin air. For the past thirty years, the FBI has been chasing the ghost of the crime, failing to find a resolution.

The Gardner Heist is considered the largest art-related crime in American history. Following the heist, a $5 million reward was put out for information that led to the return of the artwork. The Museum has since been sent on wild goose chases that have not led to any resolution. In 2017, the museum decided to double the reward to $10 million. Steve Kidder is the president of the board at the Gardner Museum, and he had this to say, “We are the only buyer for these works. They belong in their rightful home.”

What makes the Gardner Heist so fascinating is the fact that there has been no such resolution. In order to keep the stolen paintings in good shape, the thieves would have needed to keep the paintings in a room set to 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a 50% humidity rating. It is hard to believe that a pair of thieves would have the resources or the knowledge to keep the paintings in such good shape unless, of course, they’d already been sold to a private buyer.

Arthur Brand is one of the lead investigators on the Gardner Heist. Brand is considered to be one of the finest art detectives in the world. In fact, Brand has been granted the title of, Indiana Jones of the Art World’. Brand has had several successes in finding lost art, most notably recovering work stolen from the Sheringa Museum of Realist Art. Brand calls the Gardner Heist the ‘Holy Grail’ of the art theft world. Brand has worked alongside the FBI in order to pool information. The common belief among law enforcement is that the paintings have remained in the United States over the past thirty or so years.

Brand believes that the paintings have long since left the continent, claiming that he has evidence that the works have found their way to Ireland. Still, Brand isn’t largely concerned about who stole the work or where the paintings are. Brand’s sole goal at this point in time is to recover the priceless art. Brand says, “It’s about getting these pieces back. The art is world heritage!” While Brand is passionate about recovering the artwork, there have still been no new leads in the case. At some point in time, we might have to accept that the work is gone.

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