In 81 minutes during the early hours of 18 March 1990, two thieves posing as Boston police officers absconded with $500m in art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. It was the most expensive art heist in history, one of the art world’s most enduring unsolved mysteries made all the more confounding by its three decades of publicity. In the years since, leads for the missing works by such masters as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet dead-ended or disappeared in a quicksand of hearsay, suspects died and detectives retired, faint trails ranging from sensational (IRA weapons deals) to more mundane (local mobsters) went ice cold. Despite a reward offering of $5m, none of the works have been recovered, and no arrests were ever made.
Almost exactly 30 years on, the staple of Boston lore is getting the Netflix docuseries treatment with This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, a four-part series, directed by Colin Barnicle and named for the line reportedly delivered by one of the thieves to guard Richard Abath the night of the heist. The project, five-plus years in the making, takes a comprehensive a look at a case barely thawed in 30 years; it consults crime scene photos and evidence logs, interviews key journalists and legal figures, and studies several theories for a deep dive that, like other media investigations such as the 2018 Boston Globe and WBUR podcast Last Seen, arrives at plausibility in lieu of certainty.
Thousands upon thousands of police documents, multiple FBI investigations and theories taken up and dismissed – wading into the Gardner sprawl was “almost like archaeology, trying to find the edges of something”, Barnicle told the Guardian. Such digging was years in the making; Barnicle and his brother, Nick, Boston-area natives long fascinated by the case, began investigating in 2014 and shooting in 2015, a process which involved years of combing the local web of investigators and plunging into rabbit holes of theories.
The series briefly touches on the museum’s aloof relationship with the community at the time of the robbery. Inward facing and apathetic about updating security, the Gardner museum – a Venetian-style palace meticulously erected by the eponymous, singular art collector in 1899 – was somewhat of a sitting duck for an art heist in 1990. (Longtime director Anne Hawley, who served until 2016 and is one of the series’ principal interviewees, was only six months into her tenure when confronted with the double devastation of robbery and explaining said vulnerability to the press.)
But the bulk of the first two chapters ground the investigation in the nuts and bolts of the robbery itself – a far more graspable story than the more diffuse theories on where the art actually ended up in the years since. “We wanted to start with a blank slate, not assuming anything, and go from there and see where the evidence led us,” said Barnicle.
The series opens with two eyewitnesses, then high schoolers leaving a party, who claimed to have seen two men dressed as Boston police officers in a hatchback the night of the robbery (a scene recreated by actors from the Berkshire Theatre Group). From there, alarm records retrace the thieves’ steps as they ripped a strange selection of works from their frames: three Rembrandts, including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the Dutch master’s only seascape; The Concert, one of only 36 paintings by Vermeer; several sketches by Degas; and works by Flinck and Manet. The robbers also perplexingly bypassed several more valuable works but stole a relatively less expensive Chinese vase and a bronze finial eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag.
Abath, the guard on duty that night, was found by police the following morning in the tunnels beneath the art palace, bound and blindfolded by duct tape; suspicions of an inside job immediately turned to the 23-year-old music school dropout in a basement rock band, who admitted to frequently reporting to work stoned. Abath declined to be interviewed for the series, but his perspective is represented in audio recordings from an interview years earlier with the Boston Globe journalist Stephen Kurkjian, who wrote the 2015 book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist.
This Is a Robbery, like the book, lands with detail where the FBI arrived a few years earlier: that the works were stolen by two associates of the local mobster Carmello Merlino. According to this theory, the thieves were George Reissfelder, 51, and Leonard DiMuzio, 49, who frequented a Dorchester auto-body shop with ties to the mafia and both died in 1991, of a cocaine overdose and shooting, respectively. Merlino was arrested in an FBI sting for attempted robbery of an armored car depot in 1999, and died in prison in 2005. The FBI believes that the works ended up in the possession of Robert Guarente, a convicted bank robber with east coast mafia ties who died in 2004. The only member of the crowd with likely knowledge of the robbery, David Turner, was arrested along with Merlino in 1999 and released early from prison in 2019 at 52; he declined to participate in the series, according to Barnicle.
Though the series and the FBI cannot say concretely what happened to the artworks, Barnicle has his own theories. “I don’t think the people who robbed the art are exactly the same people who had the art in the months afterwards,” he explained. They were robbers for hire, which “wasn’t strange – it had happened a lot with art robberies throughout the greater Boston area”. He believes the thieves gave at least some of the stolen art to “the person who was basically slipping the bill, which would’ve been Guarente and Bobby Donati”, another mafia associate who probably masterminded the heist and died by homicide in 1991. “I think they had the motive, I think they had the wherewithal, they had done things like this before,” Barnicle said.
As for Turner, “I absolutely believe he knows about the robbery”, said Barnicle, although he doubts Turner knows where the art is after over 20 years in prison.
The key to finding the art may still reside with the living, however; Barnicle said the series was explicitly intended to raise awareness, particularly of the lesser-known works which could be in possession of someone unaware of their worth – the Rembrandt self-portrait and Degas sketches, for example, could pass to an untrained eye as unassuming family heirlooms. “I think there’s a possibility that some of small pieces are still out there somewhere on somebody’s wall – they just don’t know they have them because it wasn’t as widely spread as the Vermeer and the few Rembrandts,” Barnicle said.
As for the major works, he added, “you’re going to be dealing with some serious criminality there”. The FBI has said it determined the works traveled through organized crime networks in Connecticut and Philadelphia, were the last alleged sighting of the Rembrandt seascape was noted in 2003. The trail has been cold since.
Though less likely for the larger works probably either lost in storage or in the hands of someone who knows their import, “my hope is that the series ends up with one of the works back in their frames”, said Barnicle. Until then, the gilded frames hang empty in the Gardner museum, monuments to restoration still unfulfilled.