The most expensive art heist has gone unsolved for 30 years. A new Netflix series examines why

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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Late one night 30 years ago, while the city of Boston was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, it took 81 minutes for two thieves dressed as police officers to execute what is still the most expensive fine art heist in the world.

In total, they made off with 13 of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s pieces. The $500 million haul included works by Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, many of which were violently cut from their frames — all while two on-duty guards were duct-taped down in tunnels below the museum. Yet the still-unsolved mystery, which carries a $10 million reward for information, didn’t get national attention for years.

“This is a Robbery” — a new, four-part Netflix docuseries directed by Colin Barnicle — sheds fresh light on this elusive art crime. With the FBI case still active and no arrests ever made, Barnicle and his brother and creative partner, Nick, started their own unofficial investigation several years ago.

Thirteen works valued at $500 million were stolen from the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -- and they've never been recovered.

Thirteen works valued at $500 million were stolen from the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — and they’ve never been recovered. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“(We looked at the) court cases surrounding the actual robbery, and knew some of the people in the affidavits — like we had met them before,” Barnicle said in a video interview. “So we felt like we could figure it out. A lot of people in Boston feel that way, too, because it’s like one degree of separation away from everybody. It became like more of an obsessive thing after a while.”

But they had little to go on, Barnicle explained.

“(With) a lot of documentaries, there’s usually a verdict somewhere in there where you can pull evidence from, but we couldn’t — there was none of that,” he said. “We interviewed a lot of people just to be able to… try to get down into what actually happened that night.”

‘It feels like a haunted mansion’

The Gardner museum provided a beautiful but eclectic setting for the heist, with its unassuming exterior and extravagant galleries facing a verdant oasis of a courtyard.

“It looks like a Wes Anderson set — it’s completely weird,” Barnicle said. “It’s like a Venetian palace but turned inside out.”

The Gardner Museum is known for its architecture, in which extravagant galleries face a lush courtyard.

The Gardner Museum is known for its architecture, in which extravagant galleries face a lush courtyard. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Through the team’s exhaustive interviews, and by revisiting court documents and police reports, the docuseries uncovers what might have happened to the works — and who might have orchestrated the heist.

In the process, they re-examine some of the case’s most mystifying details. On the night of the robbery, the thieves seemed to have inside information — they knew where the security tapes were and left a hidden door ajar. Other oddities of the case: They spent time taking a relatively worthless ornament off of a Napoleonic flag; they abandoned Rembrandt’s extremely valuable “Self-Portrait, Age 23” after making the effort to take it off the wall; and, in the room that housed the stolen Manet painting, “Chez Tortoni,” the museum’s motion detectors indicated that no one else had entered the room after one of the security guards had made his rounds.

“If you go there today, they have empty frames (still hanging),” Barnicle said. “It feels like a haunted mansion anyway, and it just adds (to it).”

Art crime sprees

Stolen art can’t be sold easily so it has to be kept private forever. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its uses within organized crime — a world that “This is a Robbery” explores. As the art market skyrocketed in the 1980s and ’90s, so did nefarious interest in it.

“There were a lot of art robberies in in Metro Boston leading up to the crime,” Barnicle said. “If you had an art gallery, if you operated a museum, you had probably been robbed in the 1980s.”

By 1990, DNA profiling was still in its infancy, and, as the documentary points out, the FBI didn’t have a division for art theft (its Art Crime Team was founded in 2004).

Though the case didn't draw much national attention at the time, it remains one of the most perplexing heists. The documentary's director, Colin Barnicle, believes some of the works could still be found.

Though the case didn’t draw much national attention at the time, it remains one of the most perplexing heists. The documentary’s director, Colin Barnicle, believes some of the works could still be found. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“It definitely doesn’t seem like it was top (priority) for the FBI in that time period,” Barnicle said. “This wasn’t a widely known case.”

He believes some of the works might still be out there — perhaps the stolen drawings, for example, which might pass as reproductions while hanging in plain sight on someone’s wall.

“Because (some of) these pieces just weren’t widely known, I do feel like there is a distinct possibility that they are around,” Barnicle said. “And people who have them just don’t know that they’re stolen, or they don’t know the provenance of it, which happens all the time with art so it wouldn’t be odd.”

In 2014, a hidden painting believed to be by Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio was discovered in a French attic. The following year, a neglected painting found in a New Jersey basement that was about to be sold at a local auction for $800 turned out to be an early Rembrandt.

“My hope at the minimum bar is that people get to see the art, and that something in their memory is jogged,” Barnicle said.

This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” is available to stream on Netflix on April 7.

Add to queue: what a steal

Read:Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists” (2011) by Anthony A. Amore and Tom Mashberg

Boston Herald investigative reporter Mashberg and art crime expert Amore (who is also the director of security at the Gardner Museum) published this deep dive into fine art robberies — and why Rembrandt paintings have become the most popular target over the past century.

Watch:Trance” (2013)

James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel lead this cerebral thriller about an auctioneer who goes rogue and helps steal a Francisco Goya painting, only to injure himself and have no memory of what happened to the artwork. Cue the hypnotherapist, who explores the depths of his mind to find it.

Listen:I can steal that!” (2017–ongoing)

Comedian Pete Stemeyer hosts this true crime podcast about heists and cons. Recent episodes include the 1911 heist of the “Mona Lisa” and the 2009 robbery of nearly 300 bird skins from the British Natural History Museum.

Watch:Entrapment” (1999)

You may only remember this movie for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ iconic laser-avoiding choreography, but at the center of this action flick — co-starring Sean Connery as a master thief — was a stolen Rembrandt painting.

Watch:Gambit” (1966)

Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine star in this comedy about an elaborate plot to steal an ancient Chinese statuette from a billionaire tycoon, using MacLaine’s resemblance to the man’s late wife to pull off the con. Twists, turns and hijinks ensue.

Read: The Goldfinch” (2016)

The film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel may have flopped, but this popular book about a teenage boy who takes a painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art mixes coming-of-age with art crime.