Thirteen Works: Explore the Gardner's Stolen Art

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

It's a familiar story by now: In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art. But what more do we know of these works? How did they become a part of Isabella Gardner's collection, and how they were taken? Step inside to learn more.

CLICK AND DRAG TO EXPLORE ROOMS
Wherever you see a Google Street view image like the one at left in this tour, click into it with your mouse and drag in any direction to look around the room.

BEFORE WE BEGIN,
HERE'S HOW YOU CAN HELP
The Gardner Museum is offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to the recovery of these works in good condition.

Have a tip? Contact Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum's Director of Security, at 617 278 5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org.

THIRTEEN WORKS
Thirteen works of art were stolen from the Gardner in 1990. The entire theft took 81 minutes. Only one was taken from the first floor, most from the second floor, and none from the third floor.

LET'S BEGIN IN THE BLUE ROOM
As you enter the Gardner's historic palace and make your way past the Courtyard, you'll come to the Blue Room. In a small gallery full of paintings, it's easy to miss the absence of one.

Look closely: can you spot the object missing in the previous image that does appear in this historic photo of the Blue Room from 1926?

It's a small painting by Edouard Manet called Chez Tortoni.

You can see where it hung under the large Portrait of Madame Auguste Manet, the artist's mother. That much larger Manet portrait was down for cleaning the night of the theft.

Chez Tortoni was purchased at auction in Paris in 1922 by the artist Louis Kronberg, a friend of Gardner.

The sales receipt describes the painting: "Portrait of a blasé and yet alert young man writing a letter at the famous Paris café, his refreshing glass resting just at hand."

Chez Tortoni was the only object stolen from the first floor, and the only one whose frame wasn't left in the room—the thieves left it in the office chair of the security director at that time.

OUR SECOND STOP IS THE
SHORT GALLERY
Heading up the stairs and through the Early Italian and Raphael rooms, you'll arrive at the Short Gallery, another small room.

Behind us are portraits of Isabella and Jack Gardner, but we're interested in the cabinets at left.

Gardner designed these cabinets to display her collection of prints and drawings by such masters as Michelangelo, Raphael, Whistler, and—most important to this story—Edgar Degas.

Five works on paper by the French impressionist were stolen from the cabinets in the Short Gallery, including this one, a watercolor called Leaving the Paddock, or La sortie du pesage.

Of those five, three portrayed horse racing or horses. Two were sketches for an artistic program.

Gardner purchased these works in 1907 through Fernand Robert, her art-buying agent and exporter in Paris.

A receipt from Robert details their acquisition, along with a familiar painting you can still see in the museum today, Sargent's Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast.

One more object was taken from the Short Gallery: a bronze eagle finial that sat atop a framed Napoleonic flag. It's another small object whose absence you could easily miss.

The framed flag is the standard of Napoleon's Imperial Guard. It still hangs to the left of the doorway to the Tapestry Room. Flag and finial hang together in this photo from 1926...

... and here, in the entryway of Gardner's home at 152 Beacon Street in 1882, before she built and moved to Fenway Court, the building we know as the museum today.

The finial was purchased in 1880 with the flag through Sypher & Co., a New York art and antiques dealer.

In 1990, the thieves attempted to unscrew the framed flag from the wall, but abandoned that effort and took the finial instead.

LAST STOP: THE DUTCH ROOM
Through the Tapestry Room and to the right, you'll come to the Dutch Room, from which the best-known works were taken.

Here, you'll find four empty frames, left not as a stipulation of Gardner's will, but as symbols of hope, awaiting their paintings' return.

But paintings weren't the only thing taken from the Dutch Room.

Another stolen object sat on this table in front of Francisco de Zurbarán's portrait A Doctor of Law.

It's the Gu, a bronze Chinese beaker.

Dating to the 12th century BC, the Gu was one of the oldest objects in the museum, and holds the record for most ancient of the stolen works.

Gardner purchased the intricately patterned Shang dynasty beaker in 1923 from Parish-Watson & Co, an art dealer in New York.

As you can see in this 1926 photo, the Gu's table sits to the right of Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, also stolen in 1990.

Many of Gardner's masterworks, including this and the other stolen paintings in the Dutch Room, were purchased through her friend Bernard Berenson.

Berenson facilitated the purchase of works through Colnaghi, a London dealer. He met Gardner as a young art historian, and she helped support several years of his study in Europe. By the mid-1890s, he'd guided her through the purchase of some of her most important works—and just as important, the two had become fast friends.

This historic image is annotated "Bernard Berenson as I first saw him - I.S.G."

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee is Rembrandt's only known seascape.

"Your description of the sea picture makes me fairly ache for it!" Gardner wrote in a letter to Berenson.

The figure at bottom looking out from the painting is thought to be Rembrandt himself.

Berenson acquired A Lady and Gentleman in Black on Gardner's behalf at the same time. It hung on the wall nearby, to the left.

He described this couple as "quiet, refined people, lined in a dignified, distinguished way, and not scamped, and dashed off as so many of Rembrandt’s pictures are."

The two paintings were purchased through Colnaghi from the Hope Collection at Depedene, London, in 1898, and sent to Fernand Robert, Gardner's agent in Paris, to be held until they were shipped to the United States.

Robert cabled Gardner to let her know they'd arrived...

... and stored them with other works waiting to be shipped to Gardner, many of which you may know today.

In 1899, Gardner was getting ready to break ground on Fenway Court, which would become the museum. She acquired these works for shipment later, after the building's completion.

These weren't the only works by Rembrandt stolen from the museum in 1990. A framed self-portrait in ink was also taken.

This tiny etching is barely bigger than a postage stamp.

The etching was purchased in 1886, before the larger paintings. It appears in this receipt from art dealer Frederick Keppel & Co. as "Rembrandt 'Aux Trois Moustaches.'"

The "three moustaches" the title refers to are those on his chin and upper lip, and the brim of the cap.

This self-portrait hung in a frame attached to the side of the cabinet below Rembrandt's large Self-Portrait, Aged 23 (also taken down from the wall during the theft, but not stolen).

Gardner Director of Security Anthony Amore keeps a copy in his wallet today as a constant reminder.

Another of the stolen works is Landscape with an Obelisk, long thought to be by Rembrandt. In the 1970s, it was recognized as the work of his pupil Govaert Flinck.

Berenson called it "a work of art of exquisite, sweet pathos and profound feeling."

This painting was positioned on a special tabletop stand, as you can see in this photo from 1926. It's possible the thieves thought it was a work by Rembrandt.

On the opposite side of this stand was the last stolen work in our tour...

... Vermeer's painting The Concert. One of only 36 by Vermeer in existence, this painting is the most valuable stolen painting—and perhaps the most valuable stolen object—in the world.

Note the painting's position here on its tabletop stand in 1926, back to back with Flinck's painting...

... and its frame in the Dutch Room today.

Gardner purchased The Concert in 1892 at auction in Paris. She attended the auction personally.

To bid, she secretly signaled to Fernand Robert, who was bidding on her behalf, with her handkerchief.

Gardner's auction catalog shows an engraving and description of the painting. At that time, Vermeer was called "Van Der Meer."

The Concert was one of the first masterpieces Isabella Gardner acquired after deciding to open a museum "for the education and enjoyment of the public forever."

It was a point of pride that she outbid other museums at the auction to win it.

THANK YOU FOR TAKING OUR TOUR, AND FOR YOUR HELP
Twenty-five years after these works were stolen, the museum remains optimistic that they'll be returned.

We hope this tour contributes to their recovery, and we're heartened by the public's continued interest in bringing them back to the Gardner.

Again, if you have information leading to the return of these works in good condition, the Gardner is offering a $5 million reward. Contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org.

Credits: Story

Artwork and historic images ©Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. For more information, visit gardnermuseum.org/resources/theft

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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