In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a security guard opened a side door to the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston for two men dressed as police officers. By the time the real police arrived that morning, the guards were handcuffed and bound with duct tape in the basement and 13 works of art were missing.
The art was valued at $500 million, making the Gardner art heist the biggest art theft – and biggest property crime – in US history. To this day, the identity of the thieves remains a mystery and the art remains missing. Here are the 13 pieces lost that day in 1990. (Image credit: FBI) [Read the full story on the Gardner art heist]
Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633
One of the most expensive missing pieces from the Gardner Museum is this stormy scene by Dutch painter Rembrandt. This 1633 work is Rembrandt’s only known seascape. This work was stolen from the “Dutch Room” of the Gardner Museum. According to the museum, the man at the bottom of the painting holding his hat and looking out from the canvas is a self-portrait by Rembrandt.
Art thieves cut this painting from its frame, an act that could have damaged it beyond repair, according to Robert Whittman, a retired special agent who founded the FBI’s National Art Crime Team in 2005. The painting measured approximately 63 inches long (160 centimeters) and 50 inches wide (109 cm).
Vermeer, The Concert, 1658-1660
Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer left only a few dozen paintings after his death. One of them was “The Concert”, stolen during the Gardner heist. According to the museum, it is the most valuable stolen painting in the world. This painting alone is estimated at $200 million. It measures approximately 27 inches by 25 inches (69 cm by 63 cm) and depicts three musicians at work.
Rembrandt, A Lady and a Gentleman in Black, 1633
This large work, which was nearly 52 inches high (132 cm) and 43 inches wide (109 cm), was also severed from its frame during Gardner’s heist. “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” hangs near Rembrandt’s Seascape of Galilee. Rembrandt painted the room around 1633.
Manet, Chez Tortoni, 1878-1880
This small oil painting by Édouard Manet disappeared during the Gardner art heist. It depicts a young man writing in a Parisian cafe and once hung in the Blue Room of the museum near another Manet portrait of the artist’s mother. Perhaps fortunately, the Mother’s Portrait was being cleaned up the night the thieves stalked the museum, ripping paintings from the walls.
Govaert Flinck, Landscape with an Obelist, 1638
Once considered a Rembrandt, this moody landscape is actually the work of Dutch painter Govaert Flinck, who counted Rembrandt among his inspirations. This painting is an oil on wood and measures approximately 21 inches by 28 inches (54.5 cm by 71 cm). It sat on a table not far from Vermeer’s “The Concert” and may have been mistaken for a Rembrandt by art thieves.
Degas, The Weighing Outlet
A number of works by Edgar Degas fell victim to thieves in the Gardner Museum. The French artist is famous for his drawings and sculptures of dancers, but this pencil and watercolor work depicts a horse leaving the paddock with its rider. It measures only 4 inches by 6 inches (10 cm by 16 cm). The date of this painting is unknown.
Degas, Program for an artistic evening, 1884
This lost sketch by Degas was done in charcoal on white paper. Five works by Degas were stolen in total, all from the cabinets of the Gardner Museum’s Short Gallery. The museum’s founder, socialite Isabella Gardner, designed the cabinets herself to display prints and drawings.
Degas, Program for an artistic evening, study 2, 1884
A second sketch by Degas represents a less accomplished version of the first. It measures approximately 10 inches (25 cm) by approximately 12 inches (31 cm). Degas was a French artist who lived from 1834 to 1917. The full skirt and pointy feet here allude to one of his favorite subjects, dancers.
Degas, procession around Florence
Produced in pencil and sepia wash on paper between 1857 and 1860, this Degas work disappeared from the Short Gallery of the Gardner Museum along with four other Degas pieces. It shows a procession on a road near Florence and measures just over 6 inches high (15.6cm) and 8 inches long (20.6cm).
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, ca. 1634
This self-portrait of Rembrandt at age 27 is about the size of a postage stamp – it measures just 1 3/4 inches (4.5 cm) by 1 15/16 inches (5 cm). Engraved around 1633, the portrait was taken from the Dutch room. The print arrived at the museum in 1886, before Rembrandt’s greatest works, according to the Gardner Museum. His bill of sale called him “Rembrandt ‘Aux Trois Moustaches” or “Rembrandt aux Trois Moustaches”, a reference to the shading on his chin, upper lip and on the brim of his soft cap.
Degas, Three mounted jockeys
Another lost work by Degas made with black ink and oil pigments has disappeared from the Gardner Museum. Painted between 1885 and 1888, this Degas piece measures approximately 12 inches high by 9.5 inches long (30 cm by 24 cm).
Mouthpiece in the shape of an eagle, French, 1813-1814
The last two items stolen from the Gardner Museum were not paintings, but objects. One was this finial, perched on the mast of a silk Napoleonic flag in the museum’s short gallery. It was purchased by Isabella Gardner in 1880 through an art and antiques dealer.
The Gardner thieves attempted to unscrew the entire Napoleonic flag from the wall but failed, according to the museum. The museum has offered a $100,000 reward for this bronze piece, which is about 10 inches (25 cm) tall. The museum’s director of security told the Boston Globe that the hope was that the reward might alert the owner of the eagle to its importance, given that it is one of the least valuable objects and recognizable items stolen during the robbery.
Ku, 1200-11 BC
The second item stolen by the Gardner art thieves is more valuable. This bronze goblet, or ku, was made in China during the Shang dynasty and dates back to between 1200 and 1100 BC. The coin sat on a table in the Dutch Room of the Gardner Museum, in front of the portrait “A Doctor of Laws”. Gardner purchased the piece in 1923, and it was one of the oldest items in the museum.