The single largest property theft in the world occurred in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in 1990. The crime is still unsolved. Empty picture frames remain on the walls to show where missing paintings were. I know because Ruth and I visited this museum for the first time recently. Obsessive collector Gardner bought in excess of 2,500 fine and decorative art objects and displayed them in the museum named for her. She oversaw its design and building and officiated at its opening in 1903. It’s unlike any museum I’ve been in.
A pair of thieves took only 8 minutes to steal 13 works. Wearing fake police uniforms, the thieves roused a night watchman and told him an alarm was going off. They tied him up and went to work. They clearly knew what they wanted.
The oddest thing stolen was a bronze eagle finial from a Napoleon Imperial Guard flag. The most valuable was a Vermeer. Among the other stolen items were works by Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. Gardner had more than one Rembrandt, and it seems a bit odd that they didn’t also take the small self-portrait he painted when he was 23. For many years the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offered a $5 million reward if all 13 items were returned in good condition. Last year they upped it to $10,000,000, but some on the staff said that they didn’t expect this to remain the amount. The eagle finial carries a separate $100,000 reward. The palazzo area most affected was the 2nd floor Dutch Room where Vermeer’s “The Concert” once amazed visitors. Today it’s considered the most valuable stolen object in the world. The stolen Rembrandt, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was his only seascape.
Gardner was a fascinating woman. She bought the Vermeer, her first major painting, at a Paris auction in 1892 by outbidding The Louvre and London’s National Gallery. When she died in 1924, her museum became an ongoing time capsule because of her will. She stipulated that Harvard gets her collection if anything is disturbed or moved. Each room looks exactly as she left it.