Over thirty years ago, a legendary theft occurred when millions of dollars’ worth of artwork disappeared from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. What does that have to do with Ireland? The answer depends on who you believe. And belief is what is needed, because there is no concrete proof to connect this crime to a single suspect.
For background, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is an art museum located in the Fenway area of Boston. It is named for the woman for whom this place was a passion project. Isabella oversaw every aspect of collection of the art and how it was to be displayed.
This singular vision is part of what is so unique; it was curated by the woman for whom it is named. Stepping through a nondescript set of city office doors into the museum is to be transported into something out of the Wizard of Oz, substituting a yellow brick road for cobblestone tiles leading into an Italian palace.
The courtyard is sumptuous, featuring stonework and a seasonal array of plants and flowers. The most famous floral treat is the orange spring nasturtiums, which tumble down three stories of stone walls to land almost at your feet.
The World’s Biggest Art Heist
From the courtyard, you walk through a jewel box of a museum, with each room having its own mood and theme. There is a Dutch Room, housing Rembrandts and home to the poignant empty frames, which mark missing Rembrandts.Gardiner’s favorite room is red and houses an enormous, voluptuous Titian painting. The whole museum feels like those nasturtiums, an organic overflow of what one woman with a large bank account can create in praise of beauty.
This Eden experienced its fall in the wee hours of March 18, 1990. The story of this fall is well told on a Netflix series, “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist.” That early March morning was the moment that two mustached men dressed in police uniforms rang the buzzer on an inner museum door. They were met by the security guard, a stoner musician who was probably not the best choice for security.
The “policemen” immediately revealed that they were, in fact, there to rob the museum, and promptly duct taped the guard to a post in the basement. The thieves spent the next eighty-one minutes cutting selected paintings out of their frames, removing drawings from folio doors and taking a few small works directly off the wall.
The choices were clearly not random, but the product of premeditated planning. One thing that almost all investigators agree on is a “wish list” quality to the theft. Another astute piece of planning was the timing.
March 18 was a Sunday morning after a Saturday St. Patrick’s Day. This meant 48 hours of partying and police overtime in this very Irish city, since Parade Day in Boston is the first Sunday after the seventeenth.
The personal touch to the museum and the wish list quality of the theft merge to make this robbery feel personal. Ms. Gardner had placed an addendum in her will that should someone decide to move her paintings or change the museum, that all of the works were to be sold and the funds distributed to her chosen charities. Since this robbery was a random act, the museum remains intact. And honestly, the museum staff never thought that the crime would remain unsolved for so long.
Art robbery is a strange niche field, it requires more knowledge and cunning than robbing a bank. Enter Myles Connor, a notorious Boston-based art thief.
The name is all Irish, and his appearance is way more Darby O’Gill “King Brian” than anything menacing. You get the feeling that he uses that puckish charm too, as he has pulled off some amazing heists, including one where he stole a Rembrandt from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and used the stolen painting to negotiate a lower sentence for himself on another charge. He was top o’ the list of suspects for the Gardner job, but he had a great alibi since he was already in jail.
Myles is an intriguing character and a scene stealer when he is on screen. He also seems like the only person connected to the crime who understands the value of what was stolen.
Myles was connected to the Italian Mafia. As time went on, he gave the police a credible lead in his Mafia friend, Bobby Donati. The artist’s sketch of one of the “policeman” thieves looks like Donati. The series is trying to revisit the robbery to stir interest and engagement with the loss.
Some amazing works of art were stolen: Rembrandt’s only seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee; a Vermeer; a Rembrandt self-portrait sketch; a small Manet portrait painting named Chez Tortoni; and a few other works, totaling thirteen pieces.
One item truly looked like a personal whim: the Napoleonic eagle finial stolen from a flag top. Rewards were immediately offered and have only expanded with time and desperation. The current reward for the return of the stolen works is ten million dollars.
The show details a few “witness” accounts of sightings of a few of the paintings. Honestly, I don’t think that I would believe directions that any of those witnesses gave me.
The Netflix series is opinionated about where to look for the stolen art. They detail a group of men associated with the Boston mob. Living that hard life, almost all of the men are dead, which is not promising for recovering the art.
In the last five years, some investigators have differed with the Mafia idea. The latest hunches point to the IRA. There is a Dutch investigator, Arthur Brand, who is sure that the IRA, not the Mafia, is behind the theft. He is no armchair speculator either, having recovered over two hundred stolen works of art.
A former Scotland Yard investigator who has also recovered over fifty pieces of stolen art agrees. Why would the IRA do such a thing? The simple answer is money, always. Thirty years ago, the IRA was in the trenches of war in Northern Ireland, trying to save the six counties from the Crown. Brand believes that the paintings were stolen to buy guns or as a possible bargaining chip to negotiate something else.
There are some factors that point to Ireland. There was no man bigger in the Boston criminal world in the last fifty years than Whitey Bulger. He was a known IRA founder and gun supplier to the IRA cause, using the patina of politics to try to lend respectability of a sort to himself.
We are not unique in loving the Gardner Museum. It is on many favorite lists. There is something exquisite to its entire existence. Could the missing paintings be in Ireland? There is no reason why not.
For many, the scariest scenario is that the missing art ends up buried in a bog or attic, lost for all time. The Museum never moved anything or replaced the works. The empty frames hang as a kind of haunting, a reminder to keep looking for that which was lost.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at email@example.com.
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