Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sensational Art Heists

The Biggest U.S. Art Theft

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On March 18, 1990, two men dressed in police uniforms and donning fake black mustaches banged on the door of Bostons Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:24 a.m. Even though it was against museum policy, the two security guards let the officers in. The cops told them that they were simply investigating a disturbance on the grounds. It took only a few minutes for the security guards to realize that the men were thieves. The disguised intruders tied up the guards and quickly carried out one of the biggest art heists in U.S. history.

Lady & Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt
Lady & Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt
 

In just 81 minutes the men swept through the museum taking with them 13 items, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Govaert Flinck and Manet painting, a bronze Chinese beaker, five sketches by Degas and a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag. Rochelle Steinhaus reported in her Courttv.com article that the paintings were savagely cut from their frames leaving (the) ragged edges of the canvas behind in otherwise empty frames, which significantly decreased the paintings value. The carelessness exhibited by the thieves indicated that the robbery was not conducted by art lovers who wished to keep the paintings for personal pleasure but were more likely stolen for ransom. The paintings were estimated at a value of around $200 to $300 million.

According to the FBI, the assailants were white, medium complexioned men with black hair and dark eyes. One of the men appeared to be in his early 30s, standing at around 6 feet tall and weighing about 180-200 pounds. The second man was thought to be in his late 20s or early 30s, with a slim build, between 57 to 510 tall, and with a Boston accent.

Tom Mashberg stated in his March 2000 article in the Boston Herald that the younger-looking thief told the guards before fleeing, Tell them theyll be hearing from us. Yet, no one ever did. Despite a $5 million reward offered by the museum, the paintings were never seen again. The heist sparked a rash of theories about who stole the art work, leading FBI investigators and private eyes hired by the museum (to) pursue leads pointing to South American drug cartels, the Irish Republican Army, Japanese underworld figures and even Boston-area mobsters, Mashberg reported.

A vast majority of the leads were dropped and as the years passed hope slowly diminished in ever finding the thieves or the stolen objects. Yet, in 1997 the FBI turned their attention to two possible suspects, convicted art thief Myles Connor Jr., and his friend, antique dealer William P. Youngworth III. Even though both men were imprisoned at the time of the big heist, they were thought to have masterminded it from behind bars, Steinhaus suggested.

Myles Connor Jr
Myles Connor Jr
That year, Youngworth and Connor tried to strike a bargain with the FBI offering to broker the return of the paintings in exchange for immunity for criminal charges, the reward money and Connors release from jail, Mashberg stated. In fact, Youngworth arranged for the Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg to see one of the paintings, Rembrandts Storm on the Sea of Galilee, in a darkened New York warehouse. Ed Butler reported in The Independent that Mashberg did see a painting that resembled the masterpiece but it was uncertain if it was genuine. Not surprisingly, the deal never went through because the authorities were not willing to submit to the outrageous demands.

Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
  

Other deals were arranged with Youngworth, some of which directly involved the museum. However, all of them fell through. When it came down to it, Youngworth wasnt able to prove that he could get the paintings, although he still claims he knows who stole them. Chances are the masterpieces are scattered around the world probably being sold as copies instead of the originals that they are. It is expected that that is the only way thieves are able to get the paintings off their hands and collect on them.

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