Gardner Museum Heist Investigation

Inside the FBI Podcast: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

Podcast Release Date June 23, 2023
Full Audio youtube link

Jas: In March 1990, art thieves conned their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Massachusetts and made off with more than $500 million dollars' worth of masterpieces by artists like Rembrandt, Degas, and Vermeer.

Since that time the FBI's Boston division has diligently investigated the case, in partnership with the museum, and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office, following leads around the world. More than three decades and multiple significant case developments later, the Bureau continues to search for the stolen works. But we need your help.

On this episode of our podcast we'll learn about this historic heist; why the stolen pieces matter to the museum, the art world at large, and the FBI; the $10 million reward being offered by the museum, to help recover the artwork and how you can help.

I'm Jas and this is inside the FBI

FBI Agent Geoff Kelly: On March 18th of 1990 right after St. Patrick's Day festivities were winding down in Boston, subjects posing as Boston police officers rang the night bell for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, claiming they were responding to a disturbance. The guard against protocol allowed them into the museum. Once they were in they instructed this guard to summon his partner down. Less than a minute later his partner arrived at the watch desk.

And at that point they announced that 'this is a robbery.' They took the guards down to the basement. They restrained them with duct tape and hand cuffs and then they had free reign of the museum, and they spent the next 81 minutes going through it. Most of the works that were taken were taken from the second floor of the museum.

Jas: That was Geoff Kelly, a special agent with the FBI's Boston Division, who's been investigating the heist for more than two decades.

He inherited the case in 2002, back when he was a rookie agent on Boston's violent crime sqad. But the caper had captivated him since before he joined the Bureau.

This makes sense because the case was historic--the dollar value attached to the stolen made it the largest property theft case in American history The property was estimated to be worth about $500 million dollars. at the time of the heist--a number which the museum's chief of security, Anthony Amore calls an underestimation, due to the passage of time and inflation.

But according to Amore, if you see the theft as just a matter of dollars and cents, you're perspective is off.

Amore: The loss is multilayered. To think just in terms of the dollar value is a real mistake. We're talking about the only seascape that Rembrandt ever painted. You can't put a price tag on it. We're talking about one of only 36 known Vermeers.

We're talking about two additional Rembrandts, works by Manet and Flinck and Degas. These are great losses to culture, not just in the United States but worldwide.

Jas: And while the public may wonder if the case's publicity would lead to an influx of traffic to the museum, Amore said that at the end of the day lost art is lost art.

Amore: The fact is far more visitors would be coming every day to see a Vermeer, to see the Rembrandts, to see the Manet, the Flinck and the Degas works without question. so the cultural significance in the significance of art history cannot be overstated.

Jas: Plus he said, the thieves behind this heist did more than steal art. They also left a living masterpiece incomplete. This is because its namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, curated and design the institution to be a work of art in its own right.

Amore: The Museum opened in 1903, and when the public was allowed in, they saw that Isabella Stewart Gardner had indeed created a great museum, the museum houses thousands of pieces of art, and the art is arranged in a one-of-a-kind scenario, where the entire museum itself is a work of art. Mrs. Gardner placed each piece exactly where she wanted it. She moved the pieces often in her lifetime but her will which went into effect, upon her death in 1924 states states that nothing here can ever change, so the museum is exactly as Mrs. Gardner left it. The museum houses a vast array of art, ranging from early Renaissance Italian art to Dutch art to German wood carvings to Asian art. It is just a really eclectic collection. It is often described as an Italianate Museum because the courtyard is an inverted VEnetian palazzo made up of authentic relics. But in all it is a staggering work of beauty and nobody comes here to visit without leaving totally mesmerized by what they've seen. When you think about the fact that when these pieces were taken from Isabella Stewart Gardner's collective work of art, you've left the museum less than whole. So, in many different levels this is a tragedy for the art world, for culture in the West and throughout the world and for people who love art and cultural patrimony.

Jas: The loss is literally marked on the museum's walls, in its Dutch Room and beyond.

Amore: When people enter the Dutch Room on the second floor of the museum where the Rembrandt and Vermeer were stolen, they are struck immediately by large, gilded, ornate frames, that are hanging empty because the paintings are missing. Now some people believe that we have those frames there because Mrs. Gardner's will says you can't change anything. That's actually not the case. We purposely leave the frames there. We put them back up in 1994, four years after the heist, and we have them there for an important message to the public. And that message is only one thing can hang in each spot, marked by an empty frame, and that is the painting that was once there. So it's a remembrance of what was there. But the frames are also a sign of hope because they're a message to the public that what was once there will someday return. We make a great effort to make sure that no one ever forgets what was in our museum. and remind people that we believe and we will never stop trying to get these paintings back and put them where they belong.

Jas: So how does someone investigate a theft that occurred over three decades ago? Over the last 30 years and in the 20 years I have been the lead investigator, we've conducted an investigation literally throughout the world. We've conducted undercover operations, we've utilized informants, and sophisticated techniques all of which makes this literally the antithesis of a cold case. The way I've worked this case, from the very beginning was working it like a fugitive investigation, we're really looking for, what I call 13 perfect fugitives. Because they are the perfect fugitives. They don't get sick. They don't have to go to the dentist with a tooth ache. They don't have to get a driver's license. And what we do in any fugitive investigation is publicity. And that's what we've been doing on this case.

Jas: The biggest obstacle in this investigation has been time.

Kelly: Unfortunately people's memories fade. People die, people get ill and people move away.

Jas: He [Kelly] said the FBI Boston has received tips and leads only to discover the person connected to them is either dead or doesn't remember the necessary details.

Kelly: If you're going to look back at something that happened 30 years ago, the magnitude of the Gardner museum heist, if somebody had an active role in that or they had some firsthand knowledge about the heist yeah they're going to remember that. But if it was something ancillary something tangential like somebody said something to them, or somebody showed them something, it may not resonate at the time, and as decades pass people tend to forget things.

Jas: So what has the FBI learned since 1990? First Kelly said, the FBI believes the stolen pieces are hidden, likely in multiple places, However their current owners might be unaware of their stolen history or monetary value.

Kelly: We really have a good idea of how we think the heist went down back in 1990 and where the art work moved over the years, and individuals, who were responsible for the theft and may have had some involvement.

Jas: According to Kelly the FBI believes that at least some of the stolen artwork moved up to Maine,

Kelly: Down to Connecticut, and possibly down to Mid-Atlantic states about twenty years ago. And we're pretty confident about that. And we've done an exhaustive investigation, which has borne that out. But again I always temper that by saying that we could be wrong.

Jas: Kelly said the FBI and the museum are open to the possibility that their working hypothesis is flawed.

The Bureau can't discuss particular theories, or people it may have investigated in connection with this case. However, Kelly said

Kelly: We continue to take every tip and credible lead that we receive we take it seriously and we vet it out.

Kelly: "Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is when somebody has a [Gardner heist] theory, that they've often just concocted from Internet research, they're so certain it's the correct theory that when we debunk it, they then believe we're engaging in some type of conspiracy, or not doing our homework because we're too wrapped up in other theories. And the fact is that we take every theory individually, and Anthony and I have because we don't want to be shortsighted in what we think may have happened.

Jas: The FBI and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum steadfastly believe the stolen works will eventually return to Boston.

Amore: History is filled with examples of great artwork that has been stolen, and recovered and this is especially true of masterpieces. And typically we find that art is recovered right away. because someone has informed on the thieves, or a generation later, in which instance, perhaps the scariest, bad guy in the gang is no longer so scary or even alive. So often times you see art coming back, decades later.

A great recent example is a $140 million Willem de Kooning painting stolen from the University of Arizona in the 1980's. It came back after 32 years because the people who were holding it passed away. And when the estate sale company came to clear out the home, lo and behold, there was this de Kooning Masterpiece.

It happens very frequently. We have no reason to think that our art won't come back because of the passage of time. And in fact that there are some aspects of that that can help the investigation. So we remainoptimistic

Certainly when you're an investigator you have to accept the potential theory that the pieces were destroyed but that rarely happens. If someone has stolen artwork, and they're concerned about getting caught, that's kind of their ace in the hole. That's the one thing they don't want to do is destroy it because it could be a potential bargaining chip. So looking to history it is very very rare that stolen artwork is destroyed. And we've never received any credible information that any of the pieces were destroyed.

So while a lot of time has gone past in the world of art, when you're talking about pieces that are 400 years old, 33 years is kind of a blip, and we're confident it's going to come back. I've been in the FBI for nearly three decades and one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the amount of time that this case has been given, and the importance the FBI gives to this investigation, which is really a property case, that is more than three decades old. But the FBI management has always understood the importance of this case not just for the people of Boston and the Gardner Museum but for the art world in general.

Jas: Many of the FBI's breakthrough in the investigation have been the result of educating the public about the stolen artworks, Kelly said.

Kelly: And that's what we continue to do. We ask people to go look at the website, look at the flyers, take a look at these pieces and hopefully in time somebody's going to look at it and recognize one of these pieces.

If someone recognizes one of these pieces, or has information about the crime, they can submit a tip to the FBI or to the museum directly.

Amore: The museum is offering a reward of $10 million for information that leads to the recovery of all thirteen of our works in good condition.

While the museum is offering $10 million for the recover of all 13 pieces, we do have pieces of the reward, apportioned for each missing artwork.

So, if an individual had information about just one of the pices, they would be eligible for a reward, based on the value of that one piece.

In addition to the $10 million reward, we're offering and additional $100,000 for information that leads to the recovery of our [the Gardner Museum's] stolen Napoleonic finial.

So, although the finial is part of the $10 million reward, we're also offering that additional just for the finial.

Jas: The FBI has no involvement in the administration of these rewards, or any of their governing terms or conditions. You can submit a tip to the museum by emailing

Kelly: What Anthony and I hope is that we just need that first piece to come back, because we believe there will be a snowball effect, that if one and the person who has it assuming they weren't involved in the original theft, is not prosecuted and gets a sizable chunk of the reward that's it's going to cause other pieces to come forward.

Jas: You can submit a tip to the Bureaus by calling: 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or by visiting

You can also reach out to your local FBI field office, or your nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate.

Jas: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. I'm Jas from the FBI's Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.