Netflix’s new true crime series This Is a Robbery delves into the biggest art heist in history. On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers bound and gagged two guards and stole 13 legendary works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. "You know, most of the guards [there] were either older or they were college students," former museum night watchman Rick Abath told NPR. "Nobody there was capable of dealing with actual criminals. But that night two cops rang the doorbell. They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in. They said, 'Are you here alone?' And I said, 'I have a partner that's out on a round.' They said, 'Call him down.' And they said, 'Gentlemen this is a robbery.' "
The thieves duct-taped the guards’ eyes and mouths and handcuffed them to an electrical box. Altogether, the stolen works were valued at over $500 million dollars, and it took the thieves 81 minutes to steal everything. The pieces were from artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet, and the haphazard way some of the paintings were cut out of the frames meant that even if they were recovered, they’d never be the same.
Per The New York Times, the FBI released a sketch of the two men, describing them as white males with dark hair and dark eyes. But even though the museum put out a $5 million reward, to this day the robbery still hasn't been solved. This has led to numerous theories about the Gardner art heist, with suspects ranging from the mafia to the Irish Republican Army. There have been no reports of the paintings having been sold, and today the empty frames hang in the gallery.
Here are the most popular theories to date.
Convicted Art Thief Myles Connor Jr.
Notorious art thief Myles Connor Jr. appears in This Is a Robbery to admit he scoped out the Gardner numerous times in the 1970s. “Some people consider me the biggest art thief in the country because I robbed a number of museums,” Connor told The Patriot Ledger.
Though he was not a suspect at the time because he was in jail, people have since wondered if he figured out how to orchestrate the heist from prison. In his book The Art of the Heist, Connor explains how, after getting arrested (and later released on bail) for a 1974 art theft, he devised a plan to lower his sentence. He and several associates stole a large Rembrant from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1975, with the plan to return it months later in exchange for a reduced term.
In 1997, Connor’s associate William Youngworth took a Boston Herald reporter to see a painting that looked a lot like one of the stolen Rembrandts to prove Connor did indeed pull off the heist. But the authenticity of the painting was questioned, and the trail went cold.
Mobsters and Gangsters
There are quite a few theories involving the mafia and gang activity. Per the Boston Globe, the FBI initially believed the artwork was moving through organized crime circles — and the seemingly random choice of paintings suggested the thieves were unaware of their true value. “We have determined that in the years since the theft, the art was transported to the Connecticut and Philadelphia regions, but we haven’t been able to identify where the art is right now,” FBI Boston’s spokeswoman Kristen Setera said.
Vincent Ferrara and Robert Donati
Per Boston Globe, Myles Connor Jr. knew mobster Robert Donati, and the two often talked about the flaws they perceived in the Gardner’s security system. He claims they would even climb trees around the museum and try to figure out a possible robbery scheme.
Donati had to have heard about Connor’s plan to exchange a priceless painting for a reduced sentence. Per WBUR, when Donati’s gang associate Vincent Ferrara was arrested in late 1989, Donati proposed Connor’s original plan. Donati even later claimed to Ferrara that he was the one who pulled off the Gardner heist, and that he was planning to use the paintings to bargain for Ferrara’s release. But Donati was killed in gang-related violence in September 1991 before any deal could be made.
In The Art of the Heist, Connor maintains that one of the thieves was Donati.
The FBI thought one other possible theory was that the thieves were connected to Carmello Merlino, a mob associate who once boasted to two informants that he planned to recover the artwork and collect the reward. But Merlino was arrested in 1999 for armed robbery and died in prison in 2005 without ever producing the artwork.
The FBI also believed the two thieves could have been Merlino’s associates, George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, but they both died in 1991. The FBI thinks the stolen artwork could have been passed on to Robert “Unc” Guarente, another convicted bank robber with ties to the mafia, who also died in 2004. Guarente’s wife claimed he gave two of the paintings to Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile, but in February 2021 Gentile seemed to deny any involvement with the heist. In the interview with WTNH’s Dennis House at his Manchester home, Gentile said, “They can say what they want. I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me.”
Martin “The Viper” Foley
Per the documentary The Billion Dollar Art Hunt, notorious Irish gangster Martin “The Viper” Foley claimed to former detective Charley Hill that the 13 stolen works were actually shipped to Dublin, Ireland, where they’ve sat for 30 years waiting to be sold. That claim is still unverified.
In Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist, East Boston Rossetti gangster Louis Royce told author Stephen Kurkjian that he was still owed 15% for devising the plan. He even claims he was the one who cased the museum.
In The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, author Ulrich Boser wrote that he believes one of the thieves was Boston mobster David Turner, who had a strong resemblance to one of the composite sketches. But Turner has denied any role in the theft, even when he was offered leniency during his prison sentence at the time.
James “Whitey” Bulger
Another possible suspect was Boston’s preeminent gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, who worked covertly as an FBI informant. He oversaw a sprawling criminal enterprise, so people assumed he was either involved in the crime or knew who did it. But per WBUR, retired Boston FBI agent John Connolly said Bulger had also tried to gain information about the identity of the thieves. But not because he wanted the artwork; he told Connolly he was angry because the thieves did not ask for permission to steal from his geographic area and never bothered to pay him any tribute.
Bulger was killed in 2018, and there’s no evidence that he ever figured out who stole the artwork.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA)
In 2017, art investigator Arthur Brand told CBS News that "I'm 100% sure that the [stolen paintings] are in Ireland. No doubt in my mind.” Brand, who has a track record of helping to recover stolen artwork, said that the IRA likely has the artwork, and is using them for “payment for drug deals, for arm deals.”
"We have had talks with… former members of the IRA – and after a few Guinnesses, after a few talks – you can see in their eyes that they know more," Brand said.
An Inside Job
Some even believe Abath was in on it. Despite being tied up during the heist and denying any involvement, he told Boston Globe in 2013 that federal investigators said, “You know, we’ve never been able to eliminate you as a suspect.”
People point to his questionable actions when he was employed there; he admitted he often showed up to work inebriated, and once let a small group of friends wander the museum despite protocol prohibiting any unauthorized personnel after hours. Sensors also picked up that Abath opened the door briefly before buzzing in the thieves, and that only his footsteps were recorded where one of the paintings were taken.