Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Eclectic Museum, Infamous Heist

Corner of the frame which once held Vermeer's 1664 painting "The Concert"
sketch by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum:
Eclectic Museum, Infamous Heist
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

          The empty gilded frames in the subdued light of the Dutch Room screamed at me. I felt violated, and could only imagine Isabella Gardner’s pain, had she been alive to witness the aftermath of the world’s largest unsolved art theft which occurred in March of 1990. Thirteen pieces of art were hauled away in the early morning darkness from the famous Boston museum that bears her name. The betrayal of her trust in the public would have shaken her to the core. The items, including paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas, have never been found nor has anyone been charged with the crime. The theft was a huge loss for the museum, but the remaining art is a varied and broad collection, arranged in a unique setting designed by Isabella.

          Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was born and married into the high-society circles of Boston. Throughout her life, she was known for her spunky, vibrant personality. As a child, she disobeyed her parents one summer and ran to see the circus, while the family butler followed in chase.

Isabella Stewart Gardner - 1888
          Her interest in the arts began as a teen-ager, and it continued to grow stronger in her adult life. She married John Lowell Gardner, Jr., another wealthy Bostonian, in 1860, and gave birth to a boy, John III. Then tragedy struck in 1865, when the boy died of pneumonia at the age of two. Isabella was distraught and struggled with depression and illness for the next two years. Her husband was concerned, and he recommended they take a trip to Europe to help her recuperate. Once there, she experienced the cathedrals, the Paris Exposition, as well as museums full of old masters paintings. Her passion for art grew and it became an addiction which she fueled with her family inheritance and her husband’s wealth.

          By the 1890s, Isabella snatched up European paintings from under the noses of East coast male collectors, outbidding the likes of J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon. She continued to enlarge her collection and dreamed of a gallery to share her art with the public.

          The second tragedy in her life occurred in 1894 when her husband died of a stroke at the age of sixty-one. After his death, Isabella threw her energy into creating a unique museum to display the collection of art and artifacts. Not wanting to build an antiseptic repository, she used her creative genius to help design and construct an Italian Renaissance-style building that turned inward towards a four-story courtyard that breathed life and light onto every floor of the museum.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - view from Fenway Drive - Boston, MA
photo by William Peregoy

          Each room or gallery became an experience in itself, a setting to view and appreciate art. Once the building was completed on a site adjacent to Boston’s Back Bay Fens, Isabella spent over a year arranging an eclectic mix of furniture, wall-covering, and artwork, spending countless hours creating the mix and ambience we see today. In her will, she stipulated that the museum, completed and opened in 1903, was never to be altered in any way.

The Dutch Room - Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - Boston, MA
          On March 18, 1990, on a cold dark morning after St. Patrick’s Day, the peaceful co-existence between the museum and the Boston public was shattered. At 1:24 A.M., two men dressed as Boston police approach the side entry to the museum to notify one of the two guards on duty that they were responding to a disturbance. Without making a confirmation call to the police department, the guard allowed the two men inside. The imposters handcuffed the guards and tied them up in the basement. Free to roam, the thieves selected artwork from several galleries. The paintings, created on centuries-old canvas or wood backing, were cut from their frames. The most notable theft was a Vermeer titled The Concert. One of only thirty-six Vermeer paintings in existence, it is valued at $300 million. Included in the heist were two oddly selected pieces: an eagle finial removed from a Napoleonic flag, and a small Chinese beaker. Between 2:41 and 2:45 A.M., the thieves made two trips out the side door to load the items into an escape vehicle. It is assumed a second vehicle, probably a van, was waiting to deliver the stolen art to an undisclosed location. The thieves removed the security tapes during their exit, leaving scant evidence of the raid on the museum.
"The Concert" by Vermeer
          One of the prime suspects from day one has been Myles J. Connor, Jr., a quintessential New England bad boy. A motorcycle-riding rock-n-roller, Connor’s favorite outfit was a pair of blue jeans, an undershirt, and a black leather jacket. In the 1960s, he tucked his shock of Irish red hair under his cap and rode roughshod over the Massachusetts landscape, raising hell wherever he went. His persona was a toxic cocktail of genius IQ, pathological liar, and thief. He was a smart thief and he had no fear. His desire to own ancient artifacts caused him to begin his life of crime. The rush and exhilaration which he experienced during the execution of his thefts became addictive. With each heist from small museums and wealthy collectors across New England, he became more emboldened, and began associating with a group of thieves linked to the Mafia.

          Wearing disguises, Connor and an accomplice walked into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in broad daylight in 1975. They yanked a Rembrandt painting from the wall, ran from the museum with the guards in pursuit, and successfully eluded the cops by driving the getaway car onto a sidewalk, squeezing around a Coca-Cola truck which blocked an escape street. Connor arranged the anonymous return of the painting as a bargaining chip to reduce the length of a looming prison sentence for his previous theft of some N.C. Wyeth paintings.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Fenway Drive Entrance where Myles J. Connor, Jr., exited in 1975
with stolen Rembrandt painting.
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

          When the Gardner heist occurred in 1990, Connor was in prison in Illinois. That fact didn’t stop the FBI from interviewing him about the theft at the Gardner in Boston. There remains the possibility that he masterminded the crime from his prison cell. He openly admits that he always contemplated robbing the Gardner Museum, and made reconnaissance visits and stake-outs to watch the museum’s operation.

          Another top suspect is David Turner, Massachusetts good-guy-turned-bad. Turner ran in similar circles to Myles Connor, Jr. He linked up with local Mafia bosses and became ruthless to anyone who dared to double-cross him or turn as a witness against him. Several people who attempted to defy him, including his boyhood friend, were brutally murdered, but there was never enough evidence to convict Turner of any of the killings. A year and a half after the Gardner Heist, Turner was implicated and taken to trial for his alleged involvement in a $50,000 Labor Day weekend robbery of the Bull and Finch Pub on Beacon Street, the bar which was the pattern for the famous Cheers television show. The prosecution set up generous plea-bargain agreements with those who implicated Turner, but during the trial, Turner’s lawyer, Marty Leppo, was able to discredit the witnesses, and Turner was acquitted.

          At various times, the FBI clearly paved the way for leniency for both Connor and Turner, hoping they would assist in getting the Gardner art returned, but neither provided the information needed to crack the case. It’s very possible that either Connor or Turner was involved in the heist, or they know the individuals who stole the artwork.

          The higher echelons of the New England Mafia may have control of the paintings, but it is possible the thieves who carried out the original crime don't know what happened to the artwork after the van drove away from the museum in the dark of night.

          The FBI continues to investigate the Gardner heist and has posted a five million dollar reward for information leading to the return of the paintings. Their recent investigation has brought two more East coast Mafia names into the limelight: Robert Guarente, deceased, and Robert Gentile, currently serving unrelated sentences for gun possession and drug sales.

          Robert Guarente was a friend of David Turner and he frequented with associates who knew Myles Connor, Jr. Guarente died in 2004 while living on the coast of Maine. His wife, who was interrogated by the FBI, claimed she saw her husband put one of the stolen paintings into the trunk of Gentile’s car in 2002. Gentile flatly denied the statements by Guarente’s wife, but the FBI wasn’t dissuaded. They searched Gentile’s property and found a list of the stolen art and a 1990 newspaper clipping describing the heist. Gentile also failed a polygraph test. Although the FBI believes they are close to solving the case, it appears they have only circumstantial evidence that the two men were involved, and no one has provided information as to the whereabouts of the artwork.

          If the paintings are found and returned, it is unlikely they will be in good condition. Four-hundred year-old canvas which has been cut with a knife blade doesn’t repair easily. The paintings would suffer further deterioration if they have not been stored in a climate controlled space.

          Over twenty-four years have passed since the theft, which has been one of the most publicized crimes in history. The infamous heist has become a part of popular culture, spawning theories and fictional stories as to the whereabouts of the paintings. Copies of the artwork have appeared on walls of various episodes of popular television shows.

          Meanwhile, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum continues as a vibrant Boston institution. A new wing, designed by internationally famous architect, Renzo Piano, has been added. The delicate addition of steel and glass, which contrasts to the original building, serves as the main entry and includes a gift shop, lounge, cafeteria, meeting rooms and galleries.

Entry and new wing - Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

          The museum remains hopeful the artwork will eventually be returned, while the empty frames, which are a daily reminder of the crime, hang on the walls in their original locations in the building designed by Isabella. Crowds pay homage to Isabella’s dream-come-true. But when they enter the galleries, they pause at the blank frames and stand in a worship-like state, viewing the voids with a mixture of curiosity, sadness, disgust and pain.

          During my visit to the Gardner Museum, I looked out onto the sunlit walls of the lush courtyard and felt Isabella's presence. What emotions would she harbor if she were with us? How would she cope with another tragedy?

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - courtyard


Boser, Ulrich. The Gardner Heist: the true story of the world’s largest unsolved art theft. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Connor, Myles J., Jr. and Siler, Jenny. The Art of the Heist: confessions of a master art thief, rock-and-roller, and prodigal son. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Newcomb, Alyssa – via World News. Thieves in Half-Billion Dollar Art Heist Identified By FBI. ABC World News, March 18, 2013. website: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/fbi-thieves-identified-1990-art-heist-isabella-stewart/story?id=18757276

Valencia, Milton J,- Globe staff. Alleged Mafia figure linked to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist gets 30-month sentence. Boston, MA. Boston Globe Metrodesk, May 9, 2013.website: http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2013/05/09/mafia-figure-linked-isabella-stewart-gardner-museum-heist-gets-month-sentence/wyZtsAMOiZDKXJ2qa7sb3O/story.html

Mahony, Edmund H. A Hartford Wise Guy And A $500 Million Museum Heist. Hartford, CT. Hartford Courant, May 18, 2013. website: http://articles.courant.com/2013-05-18/news/hc-gardner-gentile-0513-20130518_1_robert-guarente-robert-gentile-gentile-claims