Was anyone watching the Gardner Museum watchman?
Night watchman Richard Abath may have made the most costly mistake in art history shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990. Police found him handcuffed and duct-taped in the basement of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum seven hours after he unwisely opened the thick oak door to two thieves who then stole 13 works of art valued at more than $500 million.
For years, investigators discounted the hapless Abath’s role in the unsolved crime, figuring his excessive drinking and pot smoking contributed to his disastrous decision to let in the robbers, who were dressed as police officers. Even if the duo had been real cops, watchmen weren’t supposed to admit anyone who showed up uninvited at 1:24 a.m.
But, after 23 years of pursuing dead ends, including a disappointing search of an alleged mobster’s home last year, investigators are focusing on intriguing evidence that suggests the former night watchman might have been in on the crime all along — or at least knows more about it than he has admitted.
Why, they ask, were Abath’s footsteps the only ones picked up on motion detectors in a first floor gallery where one of the stolen paintings, by French impressionist Edouard Manet, was taken? And why did he open the side entrance to the museum minutes before the robbers rang the buzzer to get in? Was he signaling to them that he was prepared for the robbery to begin?
No one publicly calls Abath a suspect, but federal prosecutors grilled him on these issues last fall. And one former prosecutor in the case has written a recently published novel about the Gardner heist in which the night watchman let the thieves into the museum to pay off a large cocaine debt.
“The more I learn about Rick, the more disappointed I get in him,” said Lyle W. Grindle, the former director of security at the Gardner who hired Abath in 1988.
Now, for the first time, Abath is discussing publicly what happened and admitting that some of his actions are hard to explain, but insisting he had nothing to do with what is regarded as the biggest art heist ever.
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at email@example.com.