Boston Globe March 20, 1990

$200 million art theft in Boston

It seemed like a rarity for Boston these days: a front-page crime that involved no gangs, little violence, no loss of life. But Sunday's theft of 12 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was anything but a victimless crime to art lovers interviewed yesterday.

While the Gardner was quiet and solemn in the wake of the theft, the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, where a Claude Monet exhibit is drawing thousands of vistors each day, reverberated with talk of the heist.

"The Gardner has been a very laid-back museum," said John Kelly, an MFA member, who said he frequently visits both museums. "I have to wonder if someone took advantage of a situation where no one thought something like this would ever happen."

While some may have been tempted to view the theft as a loss significant only to a privileged few, that was not the view of the majority of those at the MFA.

"If the people who stole the art are that clever, they should put those minds to good use," said Chris Mosher of Duxbury. "It was a victimless crime, but we're all victims. They deprived us of being able to look at this art, which had been all of ours."

Two men dressed as police officers relieved the museum of works by Rembrandt, Edgar Degas and Jan Vermeer, among others, in what art and law enforcement officials believe is the biggest art theft of the century. The true value of many of the works is considered incalculable because they have been off the market for more than a century.

A popular topic was whether the MFA could be vulnerable to such an attack.

"Our level of vigilance is usually high," said Peter Sutton, the museum's curator of European art. "But we'll crank it up again because of this."

Guards at the MFA said they found it hard to believe that anyone had been able to gain entry to the museum in the middle of the night, no matter how cleverly disguised.

"That could never happen here," said one guard who declined to give his name. "After a certain hour, we don't open the door. We wouldn't care if they said they were from the CIA."

Some museum-goers also said they believe that the theft could have been thwarted had security in the museum been more vigilant.

"It sounded to me like somebody had some inside information," said Bob Friedman of Peabody. "It's too bad security was so lax. It's a beautiful museum with unique exhibits. That Vermeer, there's no place else you can go to see that."

Many said they believed the art would be located soon because finding a buyer would be too difficult.

"What are they going to do with it, unless they sell it to some millionaire some place," Mosher said. "As I understand it, a lot of the art that gets stolen in robberies like this eventually gets found, just because there's nothing else to do with it."

"I would hope that the people who would be in the market for something like this will alert the police," said Larry Shaffer of Keene, N.H. "I can't imagine that something like this won't be broken."

But the Monet exhibit, which has drawn 300,000 visitors so far, is attracting casual art fans as well as aficionados.

Some of those lined up for a glimpse of the Monet exhibit seemed surprised by the buzz around the theft. "It's not my loss, I can tell you that," said Irene Sparks of Connecticut. "I don't get that much out of museums. I've had enough culture in my 52 years."

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Gardner Museum Heist