If you’ve ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you've probably noticed the empty picture frames hanging on the wall. You may have seen the gilded frames displayed in places of prominence for all to see, and been promptly baffled by them. Is there something special about the frames? Did the museum curators want to draw attention to the wallpaper?
This attraction is why someone who enters the Gardner as a casual visitor leaves much more invested in and fascinated by the museum. Of course, people can explore the courtyard with blooming flowers of every vivid hue or appreciate the collection of paintings and sculptures that span centuries and continents.
However, there is also an aspect to this museum that people can’t resist. There is a story. An unsolved mystery. The Gardner is the site of one of the most famous art thefts in history.
On March 18, 1990, at 1:24 a.m., two cops knocked on the door of the Gardner. The security guard on the night shift buzzed them in and summoned the other guard on duty. When officers entered, they revealed they weren’t actually cops. As they restrained the museum guards, one calmly (and now infamously) proclaimed: “This is a robbery.” For the next 81 minutes, they moved through the museum unchallenged, stealing half a billion dollars worth of art in the process. Today, over 30 years later, people are still trying to wrap their heads around the incident.
Recently, Netflix released a four-part docuseries about the Gardner theft called This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, created by Colin Barnicle. The documentary details the night of the theft, as well as the ensuing investigation. It brings the viewer through a series of near-misses and misdirects, jumping around a timeline to try and create what turns out to be a very confusing picture of the case, as puzzle pieces fell into place until they proved to be wrong fits. The audience is taken through the history of the museum, the complexities of art theft, and even the inner workings of Boston’s crime ring, as the series presents evidence and leads that were found while investigating. What results is an intriguing and comprehensive look at what the streaming platform has deemed the world’s biggest art heist.
The series offers a multitude of perspectives by giving interviews from a wide range of people who had experience with the theft. One of the most prominent interviewees was Anne Hawley, who was director of the Gardner Museum at the time and the first female director. When the robbery happened, Hawley was only six months into her tenure. Her segments do a remarkable job of illustrating the museum as almost a character itself and bring a personal stake to the story. Due to her position, she was at the center of the scandal and had to contend with most of the fallout. Other interviewees include reporters, FBI members, staff of the Gardner, and even notorious art thief Myles Connor Jr. No stone was left unturned, and the string of people and thick Boston accents draws the audience right into the middle of the tangled web.
This is a Robbery goes into depth about the stolen artwork. There were thirteen pieces in total, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas. There is a particular emphasis placed on Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which is a sweeping depiction of a biblical story and Rembrandt’s only seascape. While all the artwork had value, it was clear that with every close call, this was the one they most hoped to find. It was a painting so esteemed and recognizable that it seemed impossible for it to remain hidden for so long—yet the search still continues.
The Netflix series does an excellent job of portraying the details that make this case so bizarre and unbelievable. They have numerous photos from the morning after the robbery, including ones of the empty picture frames left behind after the robbers cut the paintings out of them. One particularly chilling photo was that of the guard on duty that night, Richard Abath, with his hands bound and duct tape wrapped around his face and head. These photos added an important layer to the series, making such a high-profile and mystifying case seem more grounded.
In a museum with some of the most valuable pieces of art in the world, the thieves did steal a few, but they also snatched a few items that were practically worthless in comparison. In the series, former assistant U.S. attorney Robert Fisher said, “it’s confounding. It’s hard to figure out why you would, in a museum with priceless pieces of art waste, precious time with this finial that is essentially worthless.” He was speaking of a small decorative eagle that was on top of a Napoleonic flag. The kind of piece that would never be noted or remarked upon by any museum-goer. There was one famous portrait they attempted to steal, and even removed from the wall, but ended up leaving behind for one reason or another. Details like these make the robbery so captivating and the docuseries such an interesting watch.
This is a Robbery is certainly meticulous, which, while good for an investigation, is not always best for a series meant to entertain viewers. The material is compelling and bound to pique viewers’ curiosity but, at three and a half hours, the series sometimes felt bloated with interviews and details that weren’t essential to the flow of the story.
The strengths of the series also lent to its weaknesses. While the photo of Richard Abath in restraints was a great part of the story, they proceeded to use it countless more times. The interviews built the context of the mystery, but could occasionally repeat themselves and give superfluous details. At times it could be a slog to get through, especially in the back half of the show where the branches of possible suspects became extremely far-reaching. The series could have easily been shortened and not much would have been lost in the process.
Decades later, the Gardner heist is still one big question mark. There have been developments and shake-ups in the case, but no one knows where the missing artwork could be—except maybe those who stole it in the first place. The new series is bound to be a fascinating watch for those who enjoy true crime series and indecipherable mysteries, as well as many Boston residents who are looking to learn more about the history of an event that is ingrained into their city. Many viewers might even remember the initial wave of chaos and publicity from the robbery. For those who were just introduced to the heist, the good news is Boston College students can get a free ticket to the Gardner through Robsham and see the empty frames for themselves. If nothing else, visitors can have new insight into one of the most famous art thefts in history while also enjoying one of the most beautiful museums in Boston.