The year is 1990. The scene is Boston in the early hours of March 18th in a seemingly non-descript grey building. The building is approached by two police officers. The officers tell the guards on duty that they are responding to a disturbance call. Despite the protocols in place, the guards let in the two men in police uniforms. Once inside it becomes clear that they are not who they seem to be. They overpower and tie up the guards and remain in the museum for just over one hour, stealing $500 million worth of art, a total of 13 works of art. Despite a few leads here and there, the works are still missing to this day.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of the leading female patrons of the arts in her time and was good friends with artists like John Singer Sargent and James Mcneill Whistler. After losing her two year-old son to pneumonia in 1865, the only thing that would cure her severe depression was a doctor-prescribed trip to Europe. It was during that trip that “Mrs. Jack” (as she was also known) gained a renewed lease on life and started her illustrious collection.
She continued to grow her collection and several trips to Europe (and particularly Venice) later, she had the Fenway Court built in Boston to house her collection in 1903. She put special consideration into every single detail and meticulously created installations that would elicit profound responses to the art by diligently placing paintings, furniture, and textiles from around the world together. She wanted to create a legacy that would continue to enrich the lives of Americans and expose them to important works of art. Despite wanting to continue to grow her collection like the “squillionaires,” as she humorously called the robber baron collectors like J.P. Morgan and Henry Frick, she became more frugal later in life in order to leave one million dollars to the museum in her will. She also included a list of stipulations in her will for the running of the museum, one of which was that the permanent collection was not to be altered in any significant way. She probably never foresaw frames hanging ghostly empty all around her carefully planned museum due to a heinous act.
As it is, the 13 works of art have been missing over 26 years and the likelihood that they will ever be recovered after so much time has passed is low. There are many possibilities that leave those frames desolate forever, that leave those small bits of history that created memories for those who saw them before 1990 and could have created more memories if left in their home, gone forever. It’s possible that whoever took them destroyed them in order to avoid detection, it’s possible that after years of being hidden somewhere rolled up, the paintings and drawings are in such bad condition they wouldn’t be salvageable, it’s possible they were sold off separately to the highest bidder and are hanging in someone’s home somewhere and the artwork will never be found. It’s also possible however that the paintings haven’t moved around a lot and are all still together somewhere and someday one final clue will lead to their whereabouts. The empty frames are left hanging by the museum in the hope that they will one day return to their home. The artworks taken were Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet, a total of five art works by Degas, a bronze eagle finial from the top of a Napoleonic flag, a 12th century B.C. E. Chinese Gu ( a bronze beaker), Rembrandt’s A Lady and A Gentleman in Black and his only known seascape Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee as well as a self-portrait in ink, a painting originally thought to have been painted by Rembrandt that was actually painted by his pupil Govaert Flinck Landscape with an Obelisk, and The Concert, one of the 36 paintings in existence that were painted by Vermeer. The Gardner Museum created an online tour of the stolen works of art with more information on each of the works stolen as well as details on who to contact with any information regarding the heist at https://gardnermuseum.culturalspot.org/exhibit/gAIyZKoNat4oLA?position=0%3A0
Written by: Brenna Lundahl