Biggest heist in art history, on St Patrick's day!

Spectacular, enigmatic, or dramatic, the thefts of works of art never cease to fascinate. In this seven-part series, Beaux Arts returns each week to these heists that made headlines. Today, a look back at a most ambitious robbery perpetrated by fake police officers just thirty-two years ago, on a St. Patrick's Day night in Boston. The loot ? Thirteen masterpieces including a Vermeer, a Manet and a Rembrandt, still in nature... In the early morning of Sunday March 18, 1990, what a stupor for the security officers! The relief team finds doors closed before discovering an empty dressing room. The two night security guards are handcuffed to the basement pipes, their mouths and eyes covered with tape. Deliverance for unfortunate agents, but no relief. They have been neutralized for five hours, and their attackers have clearly explained their intentions: to rob the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The exterior does not look like much, but the interior, arranged like an intimate Venetian palace according to the wishes of its founder Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), contains an impressive collection of 2,500 paintings, drawings and objects. Enough to make the wolves salivate… It's dead calm at the museum when Richard Abath, alias Rick, ends his tour shortly after midnight. Besides the fire alarms that went off for no reason, nothing to report. What a surprise when two uniformed cops he observes in the images of the surveillance video ring the intercom. Under the Irish rain which falls on the city on this night of Saint-Patrick, one imagines that the cops are busier on the road than in the museum. Rick picks up: “Police! Routine check. We urge you to open! Candide, the goalkeeper complies. It's the beginning of the trouble : the men in uniform ask him to bring his colleague Randy, in full tour. Rick obeys, Randy arrives. As soon as they are reunited, the guards are plastered against the wall, handcuffed and tied up: they have been smothered. The two intruders will be able to quietly criss-cross the galleries of the museum for 80 minutes, each on their own, as the infrared motion detectors will attest. Finally, quietly is a big word, when you see how quickly the frames were unhooked, placed on the floor, as the canvases were roughly cut before being taken away. The director of the museum, Anne Hawley , is surprised by some valuable "omissions" on the part of the burglars, starting with The Rape of Europe (1562) by Titian, yet unmissable. We also discover that Rembrandt's self-portrait kept in the museum was removed with its frame before finally being abandoned against a wall to remain in the fold. Despite everything, the fake policemen don't forget to take the magnetic tape of the video recordings of the day... A booty estimated at 200 million dollars in 1990 but which, today, would easily exceed one billion! It's a real raid! We deplore 13 kidnappings and not the least. Among them Vermeer's Concert (around 1666), pearl of the collection, one of the Delft master's most delicate compositions. There is also the loss of two paintings by Rembrandt, including Christ in the Storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee (1633), his only recorded seascape. To this must be added a landscape by Govert Flinck, the painting Chez Tortoni (circa 1875) by Édouard Manet, emblematic of his café scenes, as well as a drawing by Rembrandt, five by Degas, a Chinese Gu vase and the fleuron of a Grand Army flag eagle. Loot estimated at 200 million dollars in 1990 but which, today, would easily exceed one billion! The guard's suspicious movements By its scope, the investigation escapes the Boston Police to be entrusted to the FBI Abath is suspicious: we know that an hour before the arrival of the thieves, he opened and then closed a side door of the museum without notifying his colleague. . Precautionary gesture, he proclaims, which is however anything but conventional. A signal perhaps? Another disturbing element: the detectors did not register any movement of the thieves in the room of Manet that the guard would be the last to have visited. Would he have picked up Chez Tortoni ? Even if the police were to ask to enter the museum, we wouldn't let them in like that: first you have to take down the registration numbers and call the central office and the museum's management. In 2015, last incriminating element: the FBI publishes a surveillance videothe day before the tragedy. Rick opened the door to two men parking their car in front of the museum, to talk. The person concerned says he has forgotten everything about this meeting. Nothing convincing however, the goalkeeper is never seriously worried. We put forward a nonchalance tending to incompetence… A more serious lead leads the FBI to one of the most feared gangsters in Massachusetts: James J. Bulger, known for his links with the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The Irish terrorist group is known for stealing works of art. His signature ? Setting off fire alarms to divert attention, as was the case at the Stewart Gardner Museum. Bulger totally denies, and nothing supports the suspicions. New clues are needed. Here it is in April 1994 ! Director Anne Hawley receives an anonymous letter promising the return of the works for a ransom of $2.6 million. Despite attempts, the discussions are cut short and hope evaporates. In 1997, Boston Herald journalist Tom Mashberg was invited by antiques dealer William Youngworth to enter a hangar. The latter shows him canvases rolled up and signed. It's dark, but Mashberg thinks he recognizes Rembrandt's seascape… Unfortunately, it's a blank slate again: the few oil cracks recovered by the journalist are analysed. They date from the 17th century, but differ in every respect from the pigments used by Rembrandt . The “Merlino gang” and the lie detector A more solid hypothesis leads to the Boston mafia, the "Merlino gang". As early as 1992, an informant told the police that a certain David Turner knew where the loot was. Carmello Merlino, leader of the gang, was arrested for cocaine trafficking the same year: he offered to negotiate the return of the works against a reduced sentence. According to the leader, Turner would have been one of the two fake police officers, accompanied by George Reissfelder, who died in 1991. The person concerned formally denied during his trial in 2001 but encouraged the authorities to look into the case of Robert Gentile, another mobster linked to Merlino, who would have information on the theft. An accusation corroborated by the testimony of the widow of the alleged accomplice of Gentile: Robert Guarente, who died in 2004. Six years later, his former wife affirms that when he learned of his cancer, Guarente would have entrusted the stolen works to Gentile. Vigorously questioned in 2012, the latter denies, like the others, but the lie detector rings when he claims to know nothing of the night of March 17 to 18, 1990. It is because of police pressure, his attorney. Moreover, the search of the residence of Gentile in Manchester (Connecticut) does not give anything. With his death in September 2021, all his secrets are erased. So many uncertainties to solve the biggest heist of the 20th century . On March 18, 2013, however, the FBI put on a good face by claiming to finally know the identity of the thieves, linked to the East Coast underworld. Problem: they would be dead and the paintings not located. Little known for its laxity, the police institution nevertheless ensures that the facts are now prescribed: return the paintings, you will have absolution! For its part, the museum continues to venerate lost masterpieces. True to Isabella Steward Gardner's will that each work remains in place, those responsible have always left the walls empty. For the 25th anniversary of the theft in 2015, an application allowed a virtual visit where, in three dimensions, the stolen paintings reappeared in their case in high definition. Supporting the appeal of the FBI, the museum promises in 2017 a reward of 10 million dollars to whoever returns the treasures. What to hope for, while the missing works, when they are not destroyed, often come out after the death of their captors, the heirs wanting to wash away their crime. A generation: this is precisely the time that has passed since that terrible night of Saint Patrick's Day. Seen in Beaux-Arts - Louis Gevaert

Biggest heist in art history, on St Patrick's day!

Spectacular, enigmatic, or dramatic, the thefts of works of art never cease to fascinate. In this seven-part series, Beaux Arts returns...