March 30, 2010

Twenty Years and Counting: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft

The following is a review of IFAR's 15 March 2010 conference on the 20th anniversary of the Gardner theft written by Johanna Devlin of ARCA's postgraduate program in International Art Crime Studies Class of 2010.

Twenty Years and Counting: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft

Monday March 15, 2010: Twenty years after the single largest art heist in history, people like me, interested in art crime stories, gathered together in New York for the conference organized by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) which “celebrated” the 20th anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft.

Four speakers brought their expertise on the case.

The conference began with excerpts of the film “Stolen” presented by the producer, Rebecca Dreyfus. These excerpts provided a great introduction for the speakers as they set the context very well, presenting the main protagonists of the case, from Isabella Stewart Gardner's vision to the investigators and possible suspects.
More information about the film/documentary can be found on

Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Museum followed Dreyfus’s discussion. He supported his presentation with exclusive photos of the theft. These photos let the audience examine the damage perpetrated by the thieves.

Amore gave a description of the thieves with the sketches of the two men. However, he mentioned that at the time, the security guards of the museum were in their mid 20's and while they identified the thieves as in their late 20's early 30's it turns out that today, twenty years later, they might have been mistaken and believe that they might have been in their 40's-50's. Amore's photos highlighted how the thieves cut the canvases and removed the pictures from their frames. Additionally, he explained the lack of logic in the theft pattern. 

Why in 81 minutes – from 1:24 to 2:45 AM – would two thieves dressed as policemen steal 13 works, including paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, take “lower value” pastels by Degas and leave a Rembrandt on the floor facing the wall?

Brian Kelly, Chief of the public corruption and special prosecutions unit, US Attorney's office in Boston, discussed mostly about the immunity and the $5 million reward for the person retaining the works of art. He clarified that there was no excuse for them not to be returned because the thieves would not be incriminated if they turned themselves in.

Geoffrey Kelly, Special Agent of the FBI office in Boston was also here to add his expertise on the case and examine where we stand 20 years later. 

For the past eight years, Special Agent Kelly in the Boston office has been the lead investigator on the case and said that leads come in on a weekly basis. The possibility of the theft being commissioned by a collector seems to be unlikely. It is important to point out that the DNA samples dating back from the theft that were recently sent for reexamination not because of the 20 year anniversary of the crime, but as part of the normal procedure of an investigation. This had to be reiterated during the conference as some questions were raised concerning new possible evidence.

Kelly is confident that one day the case will be solved. Not so long ago a woman contacted the FBI saying she had found the Vermeer Concert in New Mexico; however, it turned out to be a replica. Nevertheless, it shows that every lead and tip is investigated with the hope that it will lead to the missing masterpieces.

For more information about the details of the case, including the description of the thieves and the detail of the works of art you can refer to