Museum Security Network

Gardner museum chief repeats reward offer; 13 masterpieces were stolen nearly two decades ago

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Correspondent | March 16, 2008The director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum issued a plea for the slightest piece of information about the masterpieces stolen nearly two decades ago and repeated the offer of a $5 million reward for their return.

The theft of the priceless artwork leaves a void in the museum, director Anne Hawley said in a statement released Friday, three days before the 18th anniversary of the theft, which remains the largest in world history.

“Isabella Gardner installed her galleries in a personal way to engage visitors in conversations with great art. With these artworks gone, her museum is incomplete,” she said.

The theft took place in the early-morning hours of March 18, 1990, when two men disguised as police officers talked the museum’s night watchman into allowing them into the building. They said they were responding to a 911 call and were there to investigate a “disturbance.”

Once inside, the thieves tied up the night watchman and a second guard, and for 81 minutes rampaged through first- and second-floor galleries inside the four-story building, located in the Fenway.

In all, they stole 13 pieces whose value has been estimated at $300 million to $500 million. Stolen were three Rembrandts, including the painter’s only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Vermeer’s “The Concert,” which alone is estimated to have a value of about $100 million; five sketches by Edgar Degas; Edouard Manet’s “Chez Tortoni”; and Govaert Flinck’s “The Obelisk,” which was long thought to have been painted by Rembrandt.

Also taken were a bronze beaker from China that dated back to 1200 to 1100 BC and a golden finial in the shape of an eagle that stood atop a glass-encased Napoleonic banner.

“The theft of these rare and important treasures of art is a tragic loss to the art world and to society as a whole,” Hawley said in her statement. “Imagine never being able to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, read Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” or listen to a Louis Armstrong jazz piece ever again . . . The loss of these remarkable masterpieces removes a part of our culture essential to our society.”

In her will, Gardner, who died in 1924, directed that the museum remain in the exact condition as it appeared at the time of her death. No stolen pieces have been replaced on the galleries’ walls and empty frames now hang where the Vermeer, the Flinck, and two of the Rembrandts were located in the second-floor Dutch Room, “as an homage to the missing works and a permanent place holder until their return,” Hawley said.

Anyone with information on the theft or the whereabouts of the artwork, “no matter how seemingly small,” was encouraged to contact Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s director of security, the museum’s statement said.

Neither the FBI’s Boston office, which has spearheaded the investigation into the theft, nor the office of US Attorney Michael Sullivan, which oversees it, would comment on the status of the probe or the request that leads to be sent directly to the museum. In its statement, however, the Gardner said the investigation remained a top priority of both Sullivan’s office and the FBI’s national Art Crime Team.

In prior statements, Sullivan said he was committed to winning the return of the stolen pieces and said he was willing to forego prosecution in the case if those holding the valuables were to return them in good condition.

The FBI has pursued hundreds of leads in an attempt to track down the thieves and recover the paintings, but no arrests have been made and none of the 13 pieces have been returned.

Prior news reports have stated that several museum employees, including the two guards on duty the night of the theft, passed lie detector tests administered by the FBI.

The Globe reported in December, however, that at least one of the two guards had been summoned to testify before a federal grand jury in Boston in the long-stalled investigation.

Among the questions raised was whether the guard, who had been tied up and placed in the building’s basement during the robbery, might have heard a third person assisting the two thieves ransacking the museum.

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