Boston Globe May 13, 1990

Rain beat down on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early morning of March 18.

Inside the palazzo-style museum, a young security guard sat in a cramped office. His eyes periodically scanned four television security monitors. A clock's hands crawled past 1 a.m.

It was a typical Sunday morning shift until the museum's doorbell rang. Two men in police uniforms said they had been called to investigate a disturbance. The guard, perplexed, let them in.

"You look familiar," one of the men reportedly told the dumbfounded guard. "Let me see your ID; I think I have a warrant for you."

The guard stepped forward, out from behind a counter and away from security alarms. He summoned his partner. Within minutes, it was done: The guards were handcuffed, bound and gagged -- not by two police officers, but by two thieves who had fooled them. The theft of an estimated $200 million in art -- one of the largest heists in history -- was under way.

What precisely happened that morning in carrying out the robbery is known only to the two thieves. But two months after the break-in, interviews with Boston police, the FBI, museum officials, former museum guards and security experts form a partial picture of the theft that devastated the eclectic museum in the Fenway and shocked the art world.

On the day before the robbery, 500 visitors admired the paintings scattered throughout three floors of the museum. But by midnight, two security guards had the museum entirely to themselves.

The scent of narcissus, scattered in pots throughout the courtyard, hung in the air.

Both guards were in their 20s: one was a musician, short, bearded, with hair cascading down his back; the other, slighter but taller. One guard strolled through the galleries on his rounds. The second manned the museum's watch desk at the side entrance at 2 Palace Road.

Outside, a few St. Patrick's Day revelers straggled home. Anne Hawley, the museum's director, had just finished dinner with her husband at a Beacon Hill restaurant and was headed home to Brookline. Hawley, the first director of the museum not to live in it, was in the habit of stopping at night to check with the guards. She wanted to stop that morning, but her husband was tired and wanted to get home.

Lyle W. Grindle, the head of museum security, was already home, sound asleep.

The two thieves, having donned their police uniforms, had buzzed and demanded entry. The ruse of the arrest warrant had worked perfectly; both guards were taken by surprise.

The thieves shoved both guards up against a wall. Both were quickly handcuffed. They were led to the museum's dark basement, where they would spend six of the longest hours of their lives.

There, near a boiler and a workbench, each guard was tied to a different utility pipe. Duct tape encircled their heads, vertically and horizontally. The thieves threatened to kill them.

They were an intimidating pair: One thief was in his late 30s, about 5 feet 9 inches, slim, with gold wire glasses and possibly a mustache; the other was in his early 30s, 6 feet tall, and heavier with chubby cheeks.

The thieves set to work in the darkened galleries. They appeared to know what they wanted; they bypassed artworks that were more valuable than the items they stole. In two hours, they stole 11 paintings and drawings, one vase and a finial from a flag.

Their route remains unclear. But security experts and authorities suspect that their first stop after the basement was to return to the guard watch desk.

Noticing that a camera was videotaping them, they yanked the camera around to face the wall. Tracing its wires to a nearby room, they destroyed the system's video cassette.

The thieves also tried to dismantle part of the museum's alarm system, which could track their footsteps through the building. Part of the system consisted of detectors in each gallery, which recorded movements and relayed the information to a central computer.

They turned off the computer printer, thinking that action would destroy any record of their presence. But they erred by leaving computer data that has shown details about their movements to investigators.

Even so, the alarm was worthless that morning without guards to notify the police. The Gardner Museum, like many museums, had no external alarms. With the guards trussed in the basement, the thieves were free to do their work.

The duo's first stop apparently was the second-floor Dutch Room, where six paintings were stolen.

Quickly, they set to work. One or both of the thieves wrested Rembrandt's only seascape, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" from the wall, carelessly dropping the frame on the floor. To steal "The Concert," a 17th-century painting by Vermeer, and Govaert Flinck's "Landscape with an Obelisk," they smashed the glass covering the canvases.

And just by the gallery exit, they paused before the luminous Rembrandt self-portrait in oil. But the portrait, painted on a panel rather than canvas, proved unwieldy.

They abandoned it on the gallery floor.

Authorities suspect that one of the thieves headed for the Short Gallery, also on the second floor, passing through two other galleries -- one, the Early Italian Room, filled with Renaissance paintings and antique furniture; the other, the Raphael Room.

In the Short Gallery, one of the thieves violently ripped two framed sets of prints off the wooden partitions that displayed them, authorities believe. Soon, he held Degas sketches in his hand.

The Blue Room, on the ground floor near the museum's public entrance, may have been the thieves' last stop. There, they yanked a Manet oil, "Chez Tortoni," from the security bolts that fastened it to the wall.

Then, as easily as they had entered the Gardner, the thieves exited it. Perhaps a getaway car was waiting.

It was probably after 3 a.m.

Upstairs in the Short Gallery, a small portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the museum's founder, hung above the broken frames.

It was approximately 7:30 a.m. when a daytime guard and a maintenance worker arrived for their shifts at the museum's Palace Road entrance, Gardner officials say. They buzzed to enter.

There was no reply.

As they stood there, puzzled, a security supervisor arrived with keys. He opened the door; no guards were in sight.

"My guards are missing!" he told Grindle, the museum's security director, in a phone conversation made shortly after walking in the door. "We've been robbed . . . and it's very serious."

"Have you called the police?" asked Grindle.


"Secure the building; I'm on my way," Grindle replied. He was so frantic to get to the museum that he cannot remember which car he drove.

The call to 911, on a quiet Sunday morning, crackled over the police radio. Boston police Detective Sgt. Paul Crossen had just exited from the Southeast Expressway when he heard it.

Crossen immediately spun his steering wheel and headed toward the Fenway.

The phone call bearing news of the theft jangled in Anne Hawley's kitchen, catching her in midconversation. Edward M. Quinn, the supervisory special agent of the FBI's Reactive Squad, was sitting in church when his beeper summoned him to the scene of the heist.

No call was necessary to acting curator Karen Haas, who, thinking she would have a quiet day at work, rounded the corner to find police cars surrounding the museum.

The guards were quickly rescued from the basement, but it would be hours before an inventory of the loss was completed. And it would be several days before FBI agents finished combing every inch of the three galleries where the paintings had been stolen, in a painstaking search for clues.

Today, visitors still stream into the Gardner Museum. If anything, their numbers are larger than before the theft. The only visible signs of the heist are the small black and white notices, describing the paintings and noting the date of their theft, that hang like effigies on the walls.

Changes are being made. An analyst will arrive this week to review the Gardner's security system, which Grindle was overhauling before the theft. Hawley is now pressing for legislation for stiffer penalties for art theft. One of the guards on duty that night still works at the museum. The other has resigned.

But the pain of the robbery is still fresh. "What I regret is not coming here," says Hawley, remembering her fateful decision not to stop at the museum that Sunday morning. "We would have been here when it happened. You always wonder, if you were here, if things would have been different."

Grindle, surveying one of the galleries whose paintings he knows as well as his family, is happy that none of the staff was seriously hurt. But he still is pained at the thought of the robbery, and that one of his guards allowed the thieves to enter.

"If I had a broken computer, if locks didn't function, that I could fix," he says, the soft Maine twang in his voice rising to a sorrowful rasp. "But to come and find you've been robbed because a guard opened a door -- what can you fix?"

Copyright Boston Globe


Gardner Museum Heist