The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses an impressive collection of fine and decorative art with over 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts, and much more. The building itself is three stories tall and modeled after a 15th-century Venetian-style palace with a central courtyard. The museum features many works by famous artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Degas, and Sargent on display and also houses works by contemporary artists, musicians, and scholars. The museum’s art is the personal collection of Isabella Gardner, a prominent past Pennsylvania resident, art collector, and supporter of fine arts, music, literature, and dance. Gardner was a friend to many leading artists of the day including John Singer Steward and Henry James.
The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum was the site of the largest, still unsolved, art heist in history. Taking place in 1990, the theft has been viewed as a wide-spread tragedy for the loss of cultural heritage, as well as the potential damage done to the still-missing paintings done over the course of the robbery. The robbery caused security overhauls both in the Gardener Museum, but also nation-wide. The paintings, which weren’t insured at the time of the robbery, are estimated to be worth $500 Million, and a $10 Million reward has been issued for the paintings’ safe return.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 12, 1840 to David Stewart, a wealthy Irish linen tradesman and mining investor, and Adelia Smith. She was educated in New York and Paris and married her Paris school friend’s brother John “Jack” Lowell Gardner Jr. on April 10, 1860. The Gardner’s moved to Boston and in 1863, Gardner gave birth to a son, John L. Gardner III, who died 2 years later.
To try and cheer up his deeply depressed and ill wife, Jack took her to Europe where they traveled to many countries and Isabella developed her love for art. What started as simply purchasing pieces of art to decorate their home, traveling and art became the Gardner’s passion and they began amassing a beautiful and impressive art collection.
Isabella Gardner followed her parent's passion for art. Upon her father's passing, she acquired a substantial inheritance with which she used to purchase her first painting, The Concert by Vermeer, in 1892. In 1894, she became the first American to own a Renaissance-period painting (a Botticelli). In 1898, Gardner purchased a piece of land, and in 1899, construction on Fenway Court (the original name of the museum) began. The museum opened to the public on January 1st, 1903. A few years after suffering a series of strokes, Isabella Stewart Gardner passed away in 1924 and left $1 million dollars to the museum, as well as additional money to several other charities. Gardner stipulated in her will that could never be moved, and items could not be removed or added to the collection.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s theft was the largest art heist in history, and it remains unsolved to this day. The theft, valued somewhere between $200 Million and $500 Million has resulted in widespread curiosity and speculation, since none of the paintings or artifacts have ever resurfaced, despite a widespread and continuous search, and a $10 Million reward.
The theft occurred in March 18, 1990, over St. Patrick’s Day Weekend, with the thieves making off with 13 pieces of art. The robbers assaulted the museum guards after posing as Boston Police Officers in order to gain access to the museum. They bound the guards with duct-tape and handcuffed them in the basement, disarmed the security cameras, and then proceeded to spend two hours robbing the museum, cutting the paintings out of their frames. Many art experts have despaired over the method of the theft, believing that the paintings would have been damaged by the crude cutting method.
The Museum has left their empty frames in place, symbolizing the mourning for the cultural artifacts, and their determination that one day, the objects will be recovered.
The paintings stolen include three paintings by Rembrandt—Storm on the Sea of Galilea, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a self-portrait— as well as Vermeer’s The Concert, five sketches by Degas, a portrait by Manet, Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk, a Chinese bronze vessel, and an eagle that once topped a Napoleonic era flag.
The statute of limitations ran out on the thefts in 1998.
As a result of the thefts, the Gardner Museum has increased security, insured their collections (the paintings stolen were notably not insured at the time of the robbery), installed climate control measurements, and increased fundraising activity. They also saw increased visitation and press as a result of the robberies.
Many people have been suspects or person of interests in the case, including members of the Irish Republican Army, James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston crime boss and FBI informant, and Myles Connor Jr., who claimed the title of New England’s top art thief.
The stolen artworks from the Gardner Museum have been featured in a variety of films, books, TV shows, and podcasts. The Simpsons shows The Concert in the possession of Mr. Burns, while Storm in the Sea of Galilea appears in The Blacklist and Venture Brothers. Steven Colbert facetiously claimed to be in possession of The Concert on the Colbert Report.