Gardner heist: Journalist Ulrich Boser discusses the history behind the famous theft
Will the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ever reappear? Boser addresses these and other questions about the heist, including the plan the thieves may have had and why Boston takes the theft so personally.
Ordinarily, there are just two ways for members of the public to enter the most remarkable small art museum in America for free: Buy a membership or be named Isabella like its founder. (And yes, they require an ID to prove the latter. Don't ask me how I know this.)Skip to next paragraph
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But 23 years ago this week, two visitors made their way into the museum without a ticket, a pass or the proper first name. Over 81 minutes, a pair of men ripped paintings out of frames and tore a gaping hole into Boston's heart.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has recovered from the shock of the massive theft that robbed it of an estimated $500 million worth of artwork, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. As I discovered during a visit on St. Patrick's Day this week, the museum in an Italian-style villa remains an intimate wonderland of paintings, tapestries, drawings and more – antique chairs, ancient knickknacks, a medieval knight's tomb and even a deliciously naughty Greek sarcophagus.
But the stolen artwork remains missing, the thieves remain uncaught, the $5 millon reward remains unpaid, and empty frames remain on walls at the museum. The FBI announced this week that it thinks it knows who did it, but it's not naming names.
As we noted earlier this week, many books have been written about the case or inspired by it, even novels. The best may be 2009's "The Gardner Heist" by journalist Ulrich Boser.
I reached Boser this week and asked him to describe the heartache spawned by the theft, outline his theory about what happened and predict whether we'll ever see these fantastic works of art again.
Q: As you write, some fans of the museum can still remember where they were when they heard about the heist. Why does this theft has such resonance on an emotional level?
A: It has a lot to do with the intimacy of the museum, where you really feel Isabella Gardner's presence.
The museum never changes. [This was required in the will of Gardner, a rich and fabulously eccentric art lover.] People have often told me of the experience they've had with the museum: They went as a child, and then they brought their own kids there and their grandkids. It feels like a little bit of amber. Then you go back to something you remember as a child and see a painting as beautiful as the Vermeer is ripped out, the frame hanging there empty.
Q: Do people see the theft as a violation?
A: They do. A number of people seem to see it as a very personal violation, that it affected them.