The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

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Overview

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads-and a $5 million reward-none of the paintings have been recovered. Worth as much as $500 million, the missing masterpieces have become one of the nation's most extraordinary unsolved ...

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Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

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Overview

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads-and a $5 million reward-none of the paintings have been recovered. Worth as much as $500 million, the missing masterpieces have become one of the nation's most extraordinary unsolved mysteries.

After the death of famed art detective Harold Smith, reporter Ulrich Boser decided to take up the case. Exploring Smith's unfinished leads, Boser travels deep into the art underworld and comes across a remarkable cast of characters, including a brilliant rock 'n' roll thief, a gangster who professes his innocence in rhyming verse, and the enigmatic late Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. Boser becomes increasingly obsessed with the case and eventually uncovers startling new evidence about the identities of the thieves. A tale of art and greed, of obsession and loss, The Gardner Heist is as compelling as the stolen masterpieces themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

Associated Press
“A vivid portrait of the high-stakes world of art crime.”
Publishers Weekly

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, thieves posing as cops entered Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and left with a haul unrivaled in the art world, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer, valued today at $600 million. Boser, a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, turned amateur sleuth after the death of a legendary independent fine arts claims adjuster, Harold Smith, who was haunted by the Gardner robbery. Boser carried on Smith's work, pursuing leads as varied as James "Whitey" Bulger's Boston mob and the IRA. Along the way, he visited felons-including the notorious art thief Myles Connor-and Bob Wittman, the FBI's only art theft undercover agent. Boser's rousing account of his years spent collecting clues large and small is entertaining enough to make readers almost forget that, after 18 years, the paintings have still not been found: the museum is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to their return. Photos. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Wall Street Journal
“Boser has produced a captivating portrait of the world’s biggest unsolved art theft.”
Vanity Fair
“Boser cracks the cold case of the art world’s greatest unsolved mystery.”
Boston Globe
“In The Gardner Heist, author Ulrich Boser offers a tantalizing whodunit as he embarks on an exhaustive search for the stolen masterpieces.”
The Guardian
“The book is a thrill.”
Washington Post
“Ulrich Boser presents his solution to the [Gardner] mystery.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Boser’s book on it has the feel of a speedy ride down a mountain road spiked with hairpin turns.
Associated Press Staff
“A vivid portrait of the high-stakes world of art crime.”
Boston Herald
“Artfully done... Grade: A Minus.”
Senator - John Kerry
"Now we read this. It looks like the largest theft since the Devil Rays took what should have been the Red Sox’s 2008 American League championship. I don’t know if those paintings ended up on eBay, but I do know they’re not onmy walls."
Senator John Kerry
“Now we read this. It looks like the largest theft since the Devil Rays took what should have been the Red Sox’s 2008 American League championship. I don’t know if those paintings ended up on eBay, but I do know they’re not onmy walls.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061451843
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/16/2010
  • Pages: 260
  • Sales rank: 187,540
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Ulrich Boser

Ulrich Boser has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine, Slate, and many other publications. He has served as a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report and is the founding editor of The Open Case, a crime magazine and web community. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

The Gardner Heist

Chapter One

The storm on the sea of galilee

A Disturbance in the Courtyard

Boston, Massachusetts
Around 12:30 a.m.
March 18, 1990

On the east SIDE of Palace Road, just beyond the harsh glare of a sodium streetlight, two men sit in a small, gray hatchback. The man in the driver's seat is stocky and broad shouldered, with round cheeks and squinty, James Dean eyes. The other man is shorter, standing just under five foot ten. He has the worn, craggy face of a hard-working longshoreman. A pair of square, gold-framed glasses perch on his nose. Both men are dressed as police officers, and they look the part, dark blue uniforms, eight-point ser-vice caps, and the nylon, knee-length coats that beat cops use to stay dry on wet New England nights.

A light rain fell earlier in the day. Water beads on the window of the hatchback. Across the street, a few late-night revelers spill out of an apartment building. They're young—seniors in high school—and just left a college-dorm party because the beer ran out. Now they linger on the street, talking and laughing, their voices thick and boozy. It's late on one of the biggest nights of the year, St. Patrick's Day. They have to go somewhere, one of the revelers says. Should they try and sneak into a bar on Huntington Avenue? Or pick up a case of beer and head to someone's house? Jerry Stratberg jokes with one of his friends, pulling her onto his back and wobbling her piggyback style south along Palace Road. He seesaws down the sidewalk for a few yards. She taps him on the shoulder. "Watch out, there's a cop in that car over there," she says.

Stratberg sees the broad-shouldered man in the driver's seat of the hatchback and steps toward him. Through the thin fog, they stare at each other, the broad-shouldered man giving Stratberg a flinty look that says back off, go home. Stratberg notices the man's unusual eyes—they look almost Asian—and then spots the Boston police patch on his shoulder.

What are the cops doing here? Looking for thieves? Drug dealers? There have been a spate of muggings in the area, and in October, a gunman shot and killed a pregnant woman waiting at a stoplight a few blocks away. Still, Stratberg thinks, nothing good can come from this. He's under the legal drinking age, a few months away from his high school diploma. "Let's go back and tell the others," he says. His friend slips from his shoulders. The two soberly cross the street. They whisper quietly with the group, before they all hop in a car and roar off.

The street falls silent. Some oak trees quiver in the wind. Then, shortly after 1 a.m., the two men step onto the sidewalk, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum looming above them like a castle. The nineteenth-century heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner designed the four-story building as a replica of a Renaissance-era Venetian palazzo, with soaring balconies, stone stylobates, and a blooming courtyard brimming with lofty palms and hothouse jasmines. Art was Gardner's passion, and she built a world-class collection, packing her museum with tens of thousands of treasures, including works by Titian, Velazquez, Raphael, Manet, and Botticelli. The museum also contains the only Cellini bronze in the country, the first Matisse acquired by an American museum, and Michelangelo's tragically moving Pieta.

Flamboyant, imperious, with a deep belief in the redemptive power of art, Gardner built intimate galleries for her masterworks, each room extolling a different theme, each one its own creative stew. There's a quiet, calming Chinese Loggia; a Gothic Room that recalls a medieval chapel; a Yellow Room lined with pastel-toned paintings by J. M. W. Turner and Edgar Degas. In her will, Gardner forbade any changes to her museum. She wanted her work of art to always remain her work of art. Nothing could be added or taken away. Not a Chippendale chair, not a Rembrandt canvas, not a bamboo window shade. Everything must remain in the same Victorian patchwork of wood-paneled corners and draped alcoves, or the trustees would be required to sell off the collection and donate the profits to Harvard University. And from Gardner's death in 1924 until that March 1990 evening, it was a wish faithfully kept.

The two men move to the side entrance. Next to the large wooden door is a white buzzer. One of the men presses it.

Through an intercom, a security guard answers.

"Police. Let us in," the man says. "We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard."

Inside the museum, sitting in front of a console of four large video screens, Ray Abell thinks for a moment. He's short and gangly, with a long mop of curly hair that cascades over his shoulders. A student at the Berklee College of Music, he wears one of his favorite hats, a large, wide-brimmed Stetson. For him the job is little more than a rest between rock shows, and he will often gig with his band at a local bar before he strolls into the museum just before midnight. The third shift can be hauntingly spooky. Late at night, the floorboards squeak and moan, bats dash around the Italianate courtyard, their wings softly fluttering in the night air. But the job doesn't require much work, and Abell will usually wile away the hours in the way that most guards wile away the hours, reading magazines, playing cribbage, waiting for the moment when the sun comes up and filters though the courtyard in a rosy haze of light.

Abell stares at the video screen images of the two men. Tonight's shift has already been too busy for his liking. Thirty minutes earlier, while he was doing his rounds, a fire alarm went off in the conservation lab on the fourth floor. He ran up the wooden stairs and into the room, the bright lights of the alarm strobing the walls. But there was nothing. Then, some ten minutes later, the alarm rang in the carriage house. He sprinted outside, and with the beam of his flashlight he speared the darkness, looking for flames for smoke, any signs of fire. Again, nothing. And on the video screens in front of Abell, the men look like cops. They have police patches on their shoulders. Insignia dot their lapels. Maybe someone managed to get into the courtyard? Or there was someone in the carriage house? Despite orders never to let anyone into the museum, Abell buzzes the men inside.

The Gardner Heist. Copyright © by Ulrich Boser. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

1 The Storm on the Sea of Galilee: A Disturbance in the Courtyard 1

2 Chez Tortoni: The Art Detective 11

3 A Lady and Gentleman in Black: It Was a Passion 29

4 The Concert: The Picture Habit 43

5 Cortege aux Environs de Florence: The Art of the Theft 63

6 Landscape with an Obelisk: Something That Big 77

7 Ku: Unfinished Business 89

8 Three Mounted Jockeys: Infiltrate and infatuate 109

9 Self-Portrait: I Was the One 133

10 Program for an Artistic Soiree: Any News on Your Side 155

11 Program for an Artistic Soiree II: Where's Whitey? 171

12 La Sortie de Pesage: Put My Picture on the Cover 189

13 Finial: Like a Spiderweb 209

Sources 225

Bibliography 243

Photo Credits 245

Acknowledgments 247

Index 249

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 37 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 37 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Book, with a caveat

    This is a great book for art lovers and mystery lovers, and it's a true story. Mr. Boser brings the case to life with his beautiful writing. Here is my caveat, however. If you have followed the case or have conducted extensive research into it, then, unfortunately, the book does not add much new information to the discussion; save for an interesting new suspect worthy of investigation by local law enforcement.

    This book is definitely worth reading.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2009

    Superior Reporting

    Ulrich Boser's book of the Gardner Heist is a must-read for anyone who is interested in true crime and who appreciates excellence in journalism. Ulrich combines good old-fashioned reporting (which means interviewing people in person, not just the telephone or trolling the Internet) with first-rate writing. The result is a book that grabs your attention immediately and stays with you long after you've finished. Note to the writers of the Madoff books (that's you, Andrew Kirtzman, Jerry Oppenheimer, Erin Arvedlund: Do your legwork in person. It makes a huge difference in your research and writing. Note to editors: Use Boser as a standard for writers whose books you acquire. This is what superior journalism is all about.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2009

    Excellent

    This is an excellent book and whole-heartedly recommend it to others. My only wish is to find those paintings, especially the Vermeers. An excellent documentary to watch regarding this subject is called "Stolen" and came out in 2005.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Where's Whitey?

    A fascinating story, and being from Boston it was a kick reading about all the old neighborhoods and the hoods who inhabited them. The author stepped across the journalism line as he became obsessed with the Gardner theft, and it was a hoot reading about him trekking to Ireland in the hopes of catching the FBI's Number Two Most Wanted man, Whitey Bulger.

    The book sheds some light on the Gardner and offers a reasonable theory of the crime, but after almost 20 years the paintings seem to be taking on the title of another Boston crime novel; Gone Baby Gone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2009

    What Happened to the Gardner paintings?

    As an enthusiastic reader and writer I love a good mystery. The Gardner Heist is one of the best I have ever read. Some booksare very good, but a little stilted, pedantic, often over the top with factual material. Boser had found theright blend of mystery, fact, and just plain great descriptions. There is nothing boring about his work. I will set the book aside for about six months, then go back in and read it again. It is one of thefew books, along with the entire Sherlock Homes series, I will read over, and over, and over.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 17, 2009

    Looking for Who Done It

    I found The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser a fascinating mix of who done it, the Boston underword and the author's search for the missing art and himself. The uncontroverted facts of the Gardner robbery of a Vermeer, two Rembrandts and other priceless painting would only fill a chapter. What makes this book an interesting and provocative read is the author's speculations and his tour of the Boston underworld filled with colorful and lethal characters. Moreover, the author has a real talent for quickly sketching them in a way that brings them to life. Boser's own experience playing junior shamus for three years is fine, but not nearly as good as his frequent and highly insightful comments about art, crime and human nature. I highly recommend this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2011

    Intriguing story

    This book provides insight into the world of underground art thievery and the characters who deal in it. Fascinating true crime story that is still eaiting to be solved.

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  • Posted June 12, 2010

    If Vermeer had painted the way Boser writes...

    The Vermeer painting would still be on the wall at the Gardner if Vermeer painted as poorly as Ulrich writes.
    A careful heavy editing might have helped thopis intrinsically interesting story to rise above the journeyman level of the prose. Very disappointing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 19, 2009

    Incredibly Interesting

    I never even heard about the Gardner theft until I read this book. Now I want to stay informed. There are a lot of facts and they are presented in a way that the reader can follow with ease and stay interested in the details.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    READS LIKE A NOVEL

    an extremely riviting read that is well researched. Its a real life whodunit!

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  • Posted March 24, 2009

    If you like art or a good mystery this will satisfy both!

    I really enjoyed this book. I read it in a day! The facts about stolen art are very interesting! What a terrible tragedy! All that art gone. If you have never been to the Gardner, it is a great place to spend the day! But first read this book!

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    Posted December 1, 2011

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    Posted May 16, 2009

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