24 years ago, two thieves stole art valued at $500 million dollars from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. None of the pieces has been recovered, and empty frames mark the spots on the museum walls where a Rembrandt, Degas and Vermeer once hung. The thieves also stole Edouard Manet’s painting of a man writing a letter at Chez Tortoni.
The museum is offering a reward of five million dollars for information leading to the recovery of the 13 pieces of art in good condition.
Gaining access by posing as policemen, the thieves overpowered the security guards and left them duct-taped to pipes in the basement. They selected their choices carefully, leaving behind several valuable pieces. Did they have a buyer with a specific shopping list?
Special Agent Geoff Kelly said, “It’s likely over time someone has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantel, or stored in an attic. We want that person to call the FBI.” I can’t imagine walking into someone’s home and seeing a stolen Vermeer, one of only 36 in existence, casually displayed over the fireplace.
Isabella, a patron of the arts, established the museum in 1903, housing her eclectic collection in a building designed to look like a Venetian palace. She died in 1924, leaving an endowment to support the museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”
In addition to the dubious distinction of being the victim of the largest private property theft ever, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum operates under the quirky provision that its collection must be exhibited according to Isabella’s original vision. In other words, if the museum tries to rearrange or change the exhibits in any way, the collection will be sold and the proceeds donated to Harvard University.
When the paintings and other pieces were stolen in 1990, no alternates could be hung in their stead. Empty frames mark the places where the paintings hung for nearly a century.
So, if you’ve seen Manet’s letter writer or any of the other pieces, call the FBI. Your bank account will thank you. Read more about the missing art on the FBI’s website.