The Unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

The Unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

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In 1990, the largest art heist in history unfolded in the early hours of March 18. Thirteen works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and investigators have struggled to identify any culprits in the heist. Among the missing paintings is a Vermeer, which is believed to be the most valuable stolen object in history.

The Night of the Robbery

On March 18, 1990, two young security guards were on duty: Rick Abath, 23, and Randy Hestand, 25. Abath was accustomed to the night shift, working it regularly, while it was Hestand’s first night. At the time, the museum’s policy was to have one security guard patrol the galleries with a flashlight while another sat at the control desk. The control desk also housed the button that could be used to summon police.

During the first walk-through, Abath noticed several fire alarms going off in different rooms. Upon inspection, it appeared there was no smoke or fire in any of the rooms, and so he disabled the fire panel from the control room and continued his rounds. Later, when Hestand went out for his rounds, leaving Abath at the control desk, a pair of men dressed as police officers appeared at the door.

Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, Abath theorized the police could be responding to a drunk or disorderly person who’d somehow entered the museum. Unfortunately, he was dead wrong.

The Heist

The two “police officers” told Abath to summon anyone else who was in the museum to the guard room. He did so via walkie-talkie, calling Hestand back to the room. The fake officers handcuffed Abath, telling him they thought they had a warrant out for his arrest. When Hestand arrived, they handcuffed him as well.

After explaining their true intentions, the two thieves put duct tape over the guards’ mouths and led them both down to the basement, where they were handcuffed to a heating pipe.

The thieves then made short work of finding and cutting 13 paintings from their frames. The choices were bizarre; they took some obscure works and left significantly more valuable paintings hanging. Following the robbery, the thieves stole the tape that held the CCTV recordings of them entering the building, depriving the police of critical evidence.

As for who may have done it, investigators have some theories. Some have suggested the Boston Mafia may have orchestrated the plot during a period of intense internal strife. Others have floated the idea that a gang in nearby Dorchester could have masterminded the plot. However, even 30 years after the heist, it remains unsolved, and none of the stolen works have ever been recovered.