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

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

by Ulrich Boser


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061451843
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/16/2010
Pages: 260
Sales rank: 116,987
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

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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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.

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

What People are Saying About This

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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The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
chrisromano More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Gobia More than 1 year ago
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.
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum multiple times and have always loved the place, but have also felt sad whenever I visited some of the rooms where the reminders of the stolen masterpieces and artifacts are still left in place.This is a wonderful piece of researched investigative reporting that attempts to identify all the possible leads the FBI, the police and an amazing man, Harold Smith and then additional investigative follow ups by the author himself. He presents us with profiles of all the individuals who were suspected at some point or other with orchestrating, leading or being involved in the theft of the masterpieces. In addition to the profiles, we are presented with the journeys that stolen art sometimes take, from being reintroduced into the market and sold, to being traded as collateral in the underworld among terrorist organizations and the mafia. What I found interesting was the debunking of the theory I had that stolen masterpieces are often bought by private collectors who want to keep them for themselves in specially built basements.We may never know for sure where all the masterpieces are, and it is very likely that some of them may be damaged beyond repair, but as long they aren't found, the hope still lives that they will be found one day. I sincerely hope that will happen in my lifetime, because I'd love to see them restored to their rightful place in the Gardner museum.
lahochstetler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The largest unsolved art heist in history happened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Two men stole twelve works of art including a Vermeer and several Rembrandts. The ripped and cut paintings out of frames, and the lot has never been found. Boser's book sets out to try and find out what happened to the missing art. The result is an intriguing look at art detection and the Boston criminal underworld. The methods art detectives use to recover works are often unorthodox. Detectives have to maintain a network of surly underworld contacts. This book was tremendously interesting. It is also somewhat depressing. It's frightening just how many works of art are stolen, and how poorly protected most museums are. Boser points out that many of us would like to believe that when artworks are stolen they are secreted away to private collections. In fact, that is almost never the case. Stolen art most frequently becomes currency in the criminal world, providing collateral for all sorts of unsavory underworld activities. Drugs, weapons, the mafia: stolen art funds all of them. Thieves are rarely punished because the most important objective for the art detective is to get priceless works back into museums. Boser does not ever recover any of the stolen works, but his journey is fascinating. I learned a great deal about art theft and recovery, and how the criminal world uses priceless works of art. Anyone with an interest in art or crime would enjoy this book.
gregory_gwen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
would have been better if the robbery had been solved. Not the author's fault, but there would be a lot more closure.
LTFL_JMLS on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
would have been better if the robbery had been solved. Not the author's fault, but there would be a lot more closure.
upstairsgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I devoured this book. Boser has some grammar and word-choice tics that bugged me at first, but the story is absolutely gripping. He talks about the quest to find the artworks stolen from the Gardner museum becoming almost a mania, and about doing completely insane things as he gets more and more caught up in unraveling the story. It's fascinating, and it really makes you want to quit your day job and look for stolen art. The characters who populate this unsolved mystery are people you couldn't make up - a teenage rockstar turned art thief, a merchant marine with one eye and no nose turned insurance adjuster turned art theft detective, mobsters, a "reformed" British criminal turned go-between and conspiracy theorist, FBI agents, curators. Ultimately, the book is unsatisfying, as it must be, because the paintings haven't been recovered, and no one knows for sure who stole them. But Boser's chase, and the people he meets along the way, make a fantastic story. This is a great, quick read.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is a gem of a museum. Not so much for the quality of its collection (which is only outstanding in art starved America) but in its unique composition, arranged in period rooms in a wonderful building. During my visit, I actually liked the empty frame setting caused by the tragic theft which is the topic of this book. Ceci n'est pas un tableau.If museums do not one to ruin their patron's art experience, the open display of art makes its theft by a determined crew rather easy, as the recent thefts from Oslo's Munch Museum and the Bührle Collection in Zurich show. Or museums can dupe their patrons by showing fakes (as is the custom in the Vienna Albertina, a practice aknowledged in tiny writing in the rooms). In the case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (and also the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, briefly mentioned in the book), security was seriously out of date - a management failure of the highest order. Insider knowledge may have played a part (In the Vienna case, the robber, owner of a small burglar alarm installation business, heard through the grapewine that the museum's alarms were weakened during renovations.).Ulrich Boser's account is a highly readable account that suffers from the unresolved nature of the crime. As long as the paintings have not turned up, any conjectures remain speculative. Boser has to stuff his book with implausible suspects and dead ends to reach booklength. In my opinion, a magazine article would have suited the assembled material better. I did not enjoy the company of Boston's crooks and liars as much as Boser obviously did.The reading experience is lessened by quite a number of easy to check art history mistakes, a discord to his often proclaimed exuberant love for the paintings. Unless we are talking about Zombie Manet, he did not walk around in turn-of-the-century Paris. Vermeer paintings do not show ascot-wearing men (which would be an anachronism). Overall, a nice read (with a strong first part) about a great museum. If they finally find the (remnants of the) paintings, Boser may fulfil its title.
mthelibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book contains an interesting theory of the famous unsolved art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (one of the great art treasure troves) in Boston. But moreover, it captures the essence of the place and how quickly these thefts (plainly in view with empty frames in place of artworks) become completely engrossing. If you are ever in Boston, by all means, GO to the Gardner Museum. You'll never forget it.
Jemima79 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The loss of a dozen masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is the topic of this true story. UlrichBoser opens the book with a description of how the theft took place - pieced together using all the available information. The remainder of the book discusses the clues, the suspects and the various detectives who have tried to solve the case. It gives the reader a detailed look at the issue of art theft including the motives and outcomes of these acts. It also describes the work involved in solving this type of crime and the tenacity needed to follow it through.On a recent trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with my book club I was able to view the empty frames which are all that remain of the stolen masterpieces. The art that is stolen is generally believed to be ruined and lost forever. Even the millions of dollars offered in reward have not been able to bring about its recovery. UlrichBoser's book highlights the way in which the missing art lodges itself in the consciousness of all the people who have tried to solve the crime or otherwise been involved. The loss is so potent because of the historic and cultural significance of the pieces and the multitudes of people who have subsequently been denied the opportunity to view the stolen art. The Gardner Heist began as a fascinating book, but seemed to get boring and bogged down in endless speculations in the last half. While I did enjoy learning about the heist and the people who have tried to solve the crime, I think that the book would have been more enjoyable if it were shorter and not quite so detailed about all the Boston crime personalities that could have, might have, possibly were involved.
nohablo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting and thorough peek into the world of art and the YOINKing of, crawling with fantastic storybook mobsters and cat-burglars. However, THE GARDNER HEIST is ultimately weighed down by Boser's slabs of unwieldy cliche-crutched writing*. I feel a bit bad being this negative, since, you know, it is a quick, earnest, informative, and not-atrocious read. And there's a great swift, engaging New Yorker article buried in here somewhere, entombed in the pages of Boser's (sorry!) clumsy narration, but as is, uuuuurgh. *Expect a lot of hammy TEARS BROUGHT TO EYES and AM I TOO DEEP? I MAY BE TOO DEEP. INTO THIS CASE I MEAN.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For the 20th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I read this book detailing the heist. The first chapter gives a blow-by-blow of all the known details of the heist itself in the early-morning hours of March 17, 1990. Next, Boser introduces Harold Smith, an art detective who dedicates many of the remaining years of his life gathering clues and following leads about the heist. After Smith dies in 2005, Boser himself picks up Smith¿s casebook and begins immersing himself in the case to the point of obsession. The trail of the crime leads Boser to look into various Boston underworld characters such as a noted art thief, Whitey Bulger and his mob cronies, and even the Irish Republican Army. At one point the obsession gets ridiculous as Boser visits a town in Ireland thinking he¿ll be able to pick Bulger off the street. In the end, there¿s no solution yet for the mystery of missing art, but Boser gives some interesting insights into how art theft is perpetrated and how that art may hopefully be returned.
EllenH on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I visited thie Gardner Museum & fell in love with the place, where I was hooked on the mystery of those stolen paintings. Ulrich Boser does a great job telling the very complicated story of the investigations of this famous art heist. I loved the book even though I had a hard time keeping track of the many art detectives, conissuers, thieves, and underworld characters, but found it interesting enough to read the book very quickly.
WorldReader1111 More than 1 year ago
A superb read, I think. This one has a lot going for it, on all levels. The writing itself is clean and functional, with a good, intelligent narrative that works well with the subject matter; plus, an authenticity inhabits the text, being sourced primarily from the author's exhaustive firsthand fieldwork and research. Likewise, the author employs sound logic throughout his analyses and inquiries, and injects just enough commentary and personality to be constructive, yet avoiding bias and fluff. Consequently, the book comes across as polished, objective, and factual (everything a piece of nonfiction should be, in my opinion). In this sense, I judge 'Heist' a success, if only for being concise, well written, and easy to read. As for the actual content, the book is equally rich and, for me, pleasing. From the outset, I found the basic story of the theft to be interesting and enriching; and, furthermore, the author's take on it to be informative and complete, leaving me feeling to possess a basic grasp on the case. Additionally, there is much secondary content here, seen in the tapestry of biographical and historical context of the central story, which results in a wonderful and educational human study, residing comfortably between the lines. These qualities alone are, also, satisfactory in their own right, in their fulfilling the book's stated premise; however, there is yet another layer of substance evident, and of a deeper, more profound nature than the book's overt topic. Namely, the Gardner incident serves as an excellent object lesson in the vast complexity of the reality of nearly any given event (as opposed to the perceived simplicity that is currently so common within much of public thought). Here, framed within the investigation of a man-made crime, we see an encapsulation of the intricate, labyrinthine nature of life in general, with its seemingly never-ending web of possibilities, theories, and clues -- all of which can still fail to render a conclusion, leaving the seeker in mystery, however painstaking and long-winded the search. In this aspect, 'Heist' presents a compelling metaphor for the riddle of existence, from which much can be learned. Why only four stars, then? Only because I reserve a five-star rating strictly for the most exceptional and unique of books, of which 'Heist,' while an all-around fine work, fell slightly short of. Could I give 4.5, I would. My sincere thanks goes out to this book's author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work and service. * * * Some notable quotes from 'The Gardner Heist': "[Isabella Steward Gardner] reveled in her myth. She kept a scrapbook of her media mentions and didn't complain when the papers printed trumped up stories [...] 'Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth,' she said." -- p.46 "But [the investigator] often found that the biggest problem was not the technology or the guards or even the alarms, but the fact that galleries didn't really believe they would ever get robbed." -- p.80-81 "I asked [FBI agent] Wittman if the ethics of undercover work ever bothered him, if he ever dwelt on the fact that he tells outright lies, that he is doing something wrong to make a right. He paused. He grinned. He waited for me to go to another question. We sat in silence for a moment." -- p.112
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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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