The $10 million reward stands. Authorities are pretty sure they know who stole Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art works, but they don’t know where they are. On the night of March 18, 1990, 2 men dressed as Boston police officers gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and left with a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, etc. This remains the single largest property theft in the world. After Ruth & I visited this museum last summer, I wrote “The Gardner Mystery” and “Gardner and Sargent”. But I said nothing about my reaction to the museum itself.
It’s not a great museum. The GREAT museum in Boston is the eclectic Museum of Fine Arts that’s within a short walk from the Gardner. It’s not great because it can’t, according to Isabella’s silly will, be updated. She died more than 60 years before the theft, and the museum looks exactly as it did when she passed away at the age of 84. Isabella was not born wealthy, she inherited lots of money. She didn’t start collecting until she was in her 50s and had experienced a personal tragedy. She built a house in Boston to display her growing collection, much of which she bought in Venice, and always intended for her 15th century-style Venetian palace in Boston to be an unalterable museum after her death. Its staff is first-rate and very enthusiastic about the place. They willingly gave me information about Isabella’s purchases and talked about the robbery as it this event gave snap to the place where they work.
The palace’s huge 4-story, interior courtyard is unexceptional, and the rooms filled with Isabella’s acquired treasures are dark and dated, on purpose. The staff will tell you that the low light is to protect the artworks, not to hide them. Often I found myself in a room looking for something eternally artful and not finding it. Isabella often did buy works by big names like Botticelli and Raphael, but they are in period rooms from a long-ago era with a lot of stuff that looks like it would not sell on eBay. In a world where the wealthy continuously update their living spaces, the Isabella Gardner Museum does not work.
The entrance to the old palace is via some stairs in a newish building designed by Renzo Piano. The best space in this add-on is called the Living Room, which is more of a library and a cozy, sunny space. There’s a picture of a modern concert venue in the museum’s map, so a lot apparently goes on here. But visiting the museum is like going to a nursing home and spending time with a very elderly aunt who hasn’t remembered or spoke your name in many years. The unrecovered art works are what makes the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum fascinating.