Newly Released Footage in $500 Million Gardner Museum Heist Reopens Search for Art

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Officials have released video footage related to the notorious 1980 Gardner Museum art heist that they hope will lead to the return of 13 artworks worth $500 million. FBI/Handout/REUTERS

The heist played out like a movie, and indeed, it would go on to inspire one. One night in March 1990, two men in Boston Police Department uniforms approached the rear entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. “Police! Let us in!” they told security guards, saying that they were responding to a reported disturbance. A guard buzzed them in, breaking a rule. Once inside, the two men handcuffed the guards and led them to the museum basement, where they secured them to pipes. They wrapped the guards’ hands, feet and heads with duct tape. The guards never had a chance to hit the panic button. No one found them until morning.

The thieves made off with 13 works of art, worth an estimated half-billion dollars or more, including three works by Rembrandt, five by Degas, one by Manet and one by Vermeer. They also took the surveillance footage from that night. One thing they didn’t take, however, was the surveillance footage from the previous night. The U.S. Attorney’s Office released that footage on August 6 in the hopes of recovering the 13 works, which remain missing.

On August 7, the FBI confirmed that it knows the identities of the thieves and reported that they are deceased, though one art crime expert who has been watching the case says the FBI had previously announced that it knew the identities. The circumstances surrounding the suspects’ deaths have not been made public.

0807_gardner_02 Thieves took 13 works of art from the Gardner Museum in 1990. Security Guard Paul Daley is pictured here days after the heist. Jim Bourg/Reuters

In the the nearly seven-minute video released Thursday, an unidentified man entering the museum in the middle of the night through the same door that the thieves used the following night. A vehicle that pulls up to the museum in the video matches a description of one parked outside the museum the night of the theft, officials say.

“With the public’s help, we may be able to develop new information that could lead to the recovery of these invaluable works of art,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement.

The Gardner Museum opened in 1903. Its permanent collection includes more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other works. Some empty frames belonging to the stolen works still hang on the walls.

“This is the largest art heist in American history, perhaps the biggest burglary in American history. People refer to these paintings as the Holy Grail of the art world,” says Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

0807_gardner_03 Sketches released by the FBI in 1990 show the two thieves who dressed as police officers in order to enter the museum. REUTERS

Boser says the newly released footage is only the latest clue that officials have presented to the public regarding the case. “Every year or two they’re releasing another bit of detail,” he says. “There’s always been a lot of questions and this appears to add new questions.” One of those questions, Boser adds, is whether “the thieves had some sort of inside connection.”

The museum is offering $5 million for information that leads to the recovery of the stolen works. “We remain committed to one goal: the return of all 13 works to their rightful place, which is here at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” Anthony Amore, director of security at the museum and co-author of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, said in a statement. “We believe that no stone should be left unturned.”

Also on August 6, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI’s art theft program closed another case, when they facilitated the return of a valuable Stradivarius violin to the family of its late owner, 35 years after it was stolen.

Additional reporting by Polly Mosendz