Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Biggest art heist ever still unsolved

Experts: Unlikely to happen now


The biggest art heist in history, which happened 18 years ago today at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is still unsolved. It is a mystery that has bedeviled investigators.

Whether such a massive theft of paintings, whose value today would exceed $300 million, could ever happen again is an open question, but some in the alarm and security industry maintain that another larceny on that scale is highly unlikely.

The thieves, two of whom posed as Boston police officers, stole 13 masterworks, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer.   

They spent 81 minutes inside the museum after smashing the security alarm, ripping the paintings off walls and even making away with the surveillance videotape.

That would be unthinkable in today’s whiz-bang world of remote monitoring systems, computerized tracking and around-the-clock electronic surveillance, said Wells Sampson, president of American Alarm, New England’s largest independent security firm. The Arlington-based company, whose biggest satellite office is in Worcester, counts the Worcester Art Museum among its 3,000 commercial and residential clients in Central Massachusetts. American Alarm also keeps watch over the Boston Children’s Museum and Harvard University’s art museums: the Fogg, Sackler and Busch-Reisinger. Mr. Sampson, who declined to reveal specific details of the museum security trade, said a modern museum protection system wouldn’t use videotape, and thieves wouldn’t know where the alarm was located. “The things the thieves could rely on in 1990, they can’t rely on today,” he said. “Today a lot of the technology is digital, and hidden off-site.” For example, art burglars couldn’t cut phone lines at most major museums because communication lines are wireless, Internet-based or grounded in radio transmitter programs. Also, museums and other large security-protected facilities such as hospitals, restaurants and offices have multiple backup systems; if one is disabled, another takes its place. The Worcester Art Museum hasn’t had a major theft in memory, though in 1999 it acquired a Pissarro masterwork that had been stolen in 1978 from the home of Worcester philanthropists Robert and Helen Stoddard and recovered by the FBI in Cleveland in 1998. Even so, museum security is so sensitive that Allison Berkeley, a spokeswoman for the museum, declined to comment on anything related to the subject. However, Mr. Sampson, speaking in general terms, said: “Clients today are looking for layers of protection.” “There are many more layers of support,” he said. “It’s not just guards, not just one set of cameras. You can have sensors on every item, which means signals are getting through.” Of course, Mr. Sampson conceded that even the highest-tech, most expensive and most elaborate security setup might not be able to stop a determined, shrewd band of commando-style art thieves such as the Gardner bandits (though it might help deter them). “There’s probably no way to stop every possible situation,” Mr. Sampson said. “We’re in an open society. We can’t close the museums.”

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