Twenty-five years ago, two thieves committed the greatest art heist in American history. Dressed as police officers, the pair entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston at 1:24 a.m. via a side door by ringing the buzzer, persuaded the only security guard sitting at the main desk to step away from it (and from the sole button that could trigger an alarm), and then restrained him and the only other guard on duty before making off with 13 artworks worth an estimated $500 million. None of the stolen art—which included works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas—has ever been recovered. Although the FBI stated two years ago that it had identified who was responsible, no one has ever been apprehended for the crime, or even named as an official suspect.
The Gardner Museum heist occupies a unique place in American history thanks to its scale and its status as an unsolved mystery, but in many ways it’s fairly representative of art theft over the past half-century. Investigators don't think the thieves were art experts or sophisticates in the manner of a Thomas Crown or a Danny Ocean—or even master thieves like the Pink Panther gang. The stolen works were presumably difficult to offload thanks to their notoriety. And the loss of the art continues to have profound resonance for both the museum and the city of Boston, given the popular fascination with art theft, the cultural value of art, and the sense that great works belong to everyone. A quarter of a century later, the misappropriation of masterpieces continues to have a distinctive hold on the public imagination, even as it becomes a type of criminal activity that’s both misunderstood and increasingly hard to pull off.