The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum sticks out of Boston like a chess piece on a checkerboard. A Venetian-style building wrapped around a stately garden, it’s a European pinprick in Beantown’s blue-collar sea. The space houses the private art collection of Mrs. Gardner, which includes paintings from icons such as Diego Velazquez and John Singer Sargent. The 110-year-old museum doesn’t draw the same crowds as some of its neighbors, like the Museum of Fine Arts and Fenway Park, but it’s just as famous. Yet the Gardner’s fame came at a hefty price.
On March 18, 1990, the museum made international headlines when $600 million in art was stolen from the premises—the largest property heist in U.S. history. Twenty-three years later, the case is unsolved. The loot—which includes paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and a handful of Degas sketches, among other pieces—remains missing.
In March, the FBI reignited interest in the case when new information emerged about the thieves’ identities and the paintings’ whereabouts. Tim Murphy’s recent article in the December issue of mental_floss entitled “The Art Detective,” revisits the hunt for the masterpieces through the eyes of a veteran art detective named Bob Wittman.
In 2004, Wittman was a seminal member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. Over the span of two decades, he recouped over $300 million in stolen art and cultural relics, according to the article. Wittman worked on the Gardner case for a long portion of his career. He, unlike others, is skeptical of the fresh wrinkle in the investigation.
“They are barking up the wrong tree,” Wittman told Murphy in the article.
Wittman has the bona fides to make such a bold statement, considering he came closest to recovering select pieces seven years ago.
In 2006, he followed a lead to Miami and posed as an underground art handler named Bob Clay. Through his contacts, Wittman met a black market art dealer named Sunny who offered him three stolen paintings from an American museum—a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, and a Monet—for $10 million. Wittman believed he had pieces from the Gardner in his grasp.
Negotiations ensued. Wittman constructed an elaborate sting operation replete with a yacht, fake art, and fake drug dealers to lure Sunny and recover the paintings. But Wittman’s cover was eventually blown when a pair of unrelated busts in Europe revealed his true identity. The hunt was over.
In her will, Isabella Gardner insisted the galleries, like the brush strokes of a portrait, would remain unchanged. In January 2012, the museum added a new wing—a contemporary glass structure for musical performances, exhibitions, and classes—but to this day, the empty frames that had priceless art slashed from them still hang from the walls. It’s a visceral reminder of a heinous crime.
The FBI estimates the art heist business accounts for about $6 to $8 billion a year. Even by those figures the Gardner’s valuables are more than a watermark on the big picture.
Click here to get mental_floss on Zinio.