Empty Frames and Other Oddities From the Unsolved Gardner Museum Heist

Mysterious Empty Frames: Unraveling the Enigma of the Unsolved Gardner Museum Heist

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, after a lively St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Boston, two individuals disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They made off with art treasures valued at approximately $500 million. Despite extensive searches by local police, federal agents, amateur detectives, and numerous journalists, the 13 stolen artworks, including a rare Vermeer and three valuable Rembrandts, remain missing. This event marks the biggest art theft in history.

Decades later, visitors to the museum are greeted by empty frames on the walls, where the stolen paintings once hung. These frames serve as a poignant reminder of the theft, according to museum officials, who also hold onto the hope that these pieces will one day be returned. Last month, Richard Abath, the night watchman who inadvertently let the thieves in, passed away at the age of 57. He played a crucial role in the ongoing investigation, which has yet to yield results as leads have become scarce.

This theft stands out as one of the most intriguing American crimes for several reasons.

The assortment of items stolen by the thieves was peculiar. They removed important paintings from their frames but also took items of lesser value, such as an unremarkable Chinese metal vase, a common bronze eagle from a flagpole, and five minor Degas sketches. They overlooked other valuable items, including a Michelangelo drawing, and spent a significant amount of time trying to unlock the vase.

Abath, who was one of the two guards on duty that night, was handcuffed and gagged with duct tape. Although he was never considered a suspect, his actions that night have been scrutinized over the years. The FBI kept an eye on his financial activities for decades but found nothing suspicious. Abath maintained that he had shared all he knew with the investigators, and a voluntary FBI polygraph test he took was inconclusive.

The museum has chosen to keep the empty frames on display. This decision aligns with the wishes of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who wanted her collection to remain as she had arranged it. Contrary to long-standing reports, the museum states that displaying the frames is not to comply with Gardner’s will but to express confidence that the artworks will be returned and to remind the public of what has been lost.

Interestingly, the thieves left behind a prized Rembrandt self-portrait, possibly because they forgot it. The painting was heavier than the others due to its oak panel, but it was similar in size to another stolen piece.

The list of suspects in this case has been extensive and varied, including theories involving notorious criminals and the Mafia. In 2015, the FBI named two deceased Boston-area criminals as the likely culprits but did not disclose their reasoning.

The museum remains hopeful for the return of the stolen art, increasing its reward to $10 million in 2017. It has dedicated parts of its website to educating the public about the theft and continues to seek any information that might lead to the recovery of the artworks.

“We have pursued every lead and remain open to new information,” said Anthony Amore, the museum’s security chief. “The most important thing is to find out where the artworks are today and to bring them back.”

This theft and the ongoing search for the missing artworks continue to captivate the public’s imagination and serve as a reminder of the cultural loss suffered.