Art and Intrigue II: The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser

March 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm (Art, Book review, books, Crime)

heist At 12:30 AM on March 18, 1990, two men gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Employing subterfuge – they were dressed as policemen – they had deceived the two duty guards, whom they tied up and left in the basement of the building. As of that moment, the  impostors had the run of the lightly secured premises. They proceeded to help themselves to some of the world’s most priceless objets d’art. At 2:41 AM, they left as they had entered, through the building’s side entrance:

“The thieves were inside for a total of eighty-one minutes and nabbed thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million. They’ve just pulled off the largest robbery in history. In the wet, empty streets, the thieves and their faceless associates start up their cars and speed down Palace Road, and as their tail-lights disappear into the night, so do the Gardner masterpieces.

Thus did an audacious dead-of-night caper instantly attain the status of legend, giving rise to questions that have perplexed police, federal agents, private investigators, and art lovers for almost two decades: Who masterminded this heist?  And where is the stolen art?

This is the question that at first intrigued, then perplexed, then ultimately obsessed journalist Ulrich Boser. Boser’s quest led him first to  Harold Smith, a man who, in the course of a career as an international expert on art theft, had amassed an enviable track record when it came to locating stolen art work and jewelry. For years, Smith had focused on the Gardner theft and occasionally came tantalizingly close to cracking the case. But he died without solving the mystery.

harold-smith Spending time with Harold Smith was an edifying experience for Boser; it was, vicariously, for me as well. Despite being ravaged by an aggressive form of skin cancer, Smith never lost his drive, his acuity, or his generosity. Up to the end, he maintained a vigorous work ethic enlivened by a sense of humor that was probably his salvation. When Smith died in 2005, Boser vowed to take up the search where his mentor had left off.

As the investigation proceeded, Boser encountered, among others, members of the so-called New England Mafia, the most notorious of which is the famously elusive James “Whitey” Bulger.

bulger06042008 Bulger and others of his ilk have long been suspected of, at the very least, harboring guilty knowledge concerning the Gardner theft and the whereabouts of the stolen treasures. Now, I admit that I often think of Boston as an island of cultural riches amid the sea of vulgarity threatening to engulf the rest of the country. I have heard about the existence of a criminal underworld in the environs, but I was rather taken aback by the viciousness of some of its denizens, as described by Boser. I found myself thinking back to Martin Scorsese’s harrowing film, The Departed.

In addition to the aforementioned mobsters, we meet members of various law enforcement agencies. My particular favorite among these was Charlie Sabba, a New Jersey police officer with a Bachelor of fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.  A painter himself  and passionate about art in general, he put me in mind of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler and P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.

The list of dramatis personae goes on. There are run-of-the-mill grifters,  art and antiques dealers, and a few who are a  bit of both. Boser  followed the trail of the missing masterpieces to Ireland, where many in the know believe they are hidden. (Whitey Bulger himself is rumored to be concealed somewhere on the Emerald Isle.)

The book features an intriguing section about how great painting affects some viewers:

“Philosopher Richard Wollheim made three trips to Germany to view the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald’s sixteenth-century masterwork, but each time he looked at the canvas, he found it unbearable and had to turn away. There is a book dedicated to people who cry in front of paintings, and a disease called Stendhal’s Syndrome, where extensive exposure to Old Master paintings can cause dizziness, confusion, and hallucinations.

The book referenced in this passage is Pictures & Tears by James Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  And as for the Isenheim Altarpiece, read this description, provided by Hungary’s superb  Web Gallery of Art. Then gaze upon the altarpiece itself (by clicking on links at lower left). You may then better understand Richard Wollheim’s reaction.

(Not to be nitpicking, but Colmar, home to the Unterlinden Museum which houses the Isenheim Altarpiece, has been part of France since 1945.)

Generally the pace of The Gardner Heist is lively, although as events unfold, Boser has some difficulty keeping the suspense ratcheted up. I think this is primarily the fault of the narrative arc of the story. It starts with a bang – the lightning strike, in the dead of night, by the two daring thieves.  Boser then goes on to detail the investigation, which is, alas, a tale of fizzling leads, dashed hopes, and profound frustration. Ultimately, one does tire of all the evasive tactics, coyness, legal maneuvering, posturing, and outright lying on the part of many of the individuals interviewed by Boser. Especially since the stakes are so very, very high…

Chez Tortoni,  by Edouard Manet

Chez Tortoni, by Edouard Manet

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

The Concert, by Vermeer

The Concert, by Vermeer

The Rembrandt is the only known seascape by that great master. The Vermeer is one of only thirty-four works positively identified as being by him. And as for Chez Tortoni, there is such mystery in that man’s expression…  More than once, while engrossed in The Gardner Heist, I wanted to stand up and shout, enough already! Give us back our paintings, our art, our patrimony.


In the fall of 1990, my husband and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time. Just beyond the entryway, there was a table displaying reproductions of the stolen art. Contact numbers for the FBI and the Boston Police were provided. “If you have any information…”  Since then, there has been plenty of information, ranging from tantalizing to fraudulent, virtually all of it useless.

In 2005, The Boston Globe published this multimedia review by Steve Kurkjian of the facts of the case. And in “A Wounded Museum Feels a Jolt of Progress” (New York Times,  March 13, 2009),  Abby Goodnough updates us on the Gardner’s efforts to move into the future – this, despite the strictures forbidding change that “Mrs. Jack” placed in her will. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains, after all, a repository of countless treasures placed in the most gracious of settings.

The Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by John Singer Sargent

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by John Singer Sargent


murderg A final note: one of my favorite mystery authors, Jane Langton, sets most of her novels in the greater Boston area, where she is a long time resident. Langton published Murder at the Gardner in 1988. I often wonder what she thought when she opened her paper on that March morning two years later.


  1. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes Zeitoun by Dave Eggers The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft – Ulirch Boser The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography – Graham Robb American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau:   their lives, their loves, their work – Susan Cheever City of Falling Angels – John Berendt Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War – Nathaniel Philbrick Archie & Amelie: love and madness in the Gilded Age – Donna Lucey Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan The Girls Who Went Away: the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade – Ann           Fessler Uncommon Arrangements: seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939 – Katie Roiphe Indian Summer: the secret history of the end of an empire – Alex von Tunzelmann Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: madness, murder, and the collision of cultures in the Arctic, 1913 – McKay Jenkins A Venetian Affair and Lucia: a Venetian life in the age of Napoleon – Andrea Di Robilant Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective – Kate Summerscale A Passion for Nature:  the life of John Muir – Donald Worster Zeitoun – Dave Eggers The Age of Wonder:  how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science – Richard Holmes Parallel Lives: five Victorian marriages – Phyllis Rose The Art of Time in Fiction: as long as it takes – Joan Silber May and Amy: a true story of family, forbidden love, and the secret lives of May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones – Josceline Dimbleby The Last Duel: a true story of crime, scandal, and trial by combat in medieval France – Eric Jager Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It – Richard S. Tedlow Nothing To Be Frightened Of – Julian Barnes […]

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