Could You Solve The Biggest Art Heist in History?

Josie Klakström

New Interactive Show Gives Audience Chance to Play Detective.
Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

The art heist of 1990 in Boston saw more than $500 million dollars worth of art stolen from the Isabelle Stewart Gardener Museum located on Evans Way close to Simmons University.

Now, an interactive show created by the FSCJ Artist Series offers participants the role of detective to go through the motions of a real case to work out who stole the 13 pieces of artwork.

The real heist saw paintings by Rembrandt, Manet and Degas savagely cut from their frames on the night of the 18thof March. The two thieves were seen outside the museum in a hatchback by St Patrick’s Day celebrators. They were dressed as policemen, which gave them easy access to the building. They told the two guards on duty that there had been a disturbance, and once they were inside the building, they tied up 23 year old Rick Abath and 25 year old Randy Hestand, and let themselves into the galleries.

The two men’s movements were recorded by infrared detectors, so police knew that they started in the Dutch Room on the second floor. Here, they stole Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – worth around $100 million - and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, depicting a man and a woman that dates back to 1633.

The paintings were thrown onto the marble floor to break the glass and the canvases were shrewdly cut from their frames, leaving behind remnants of the historic paintings. Next, the thieves stole Landscape with Obelisk by Govert Flinck, dating back to 1638. They also took The Concert by Johannes Vermeer from the same room.

After stealing a few more prominent paintings, the thieves went to check on the guards and took the cassette tapes from the security office. They left shortly after 2.45 am – just 81 minutes after they arrived.

Later that morning, the second security guard shift alerted the security director when they couldn’t access the building. The guards were found in the basement, and the frame that once encased Manet’s Chez Tortoni was found on the security director’s desk.

The strange mix of paintings has always puzzled those involved. Though priceless paintings were taken in the heist, work by Michelangelo and Botticelli were left in their frames. Police have theorised over the years that the pieces were stolen for specific commissions.

The FBI believed that the theft was curated by a larger criminal organisation and spent time interrogating suspects, organising sting operations and using undercover informants to find out the truth of the robbery, but to no avail. There are multiple theories about who was behind the heist, and many believe that Bobby Donati – an associate of the Patriarca crime family out of New England – was to blame for the theft. Donati was stabbed and killed just a year later and at the time of his death, he was under heavy surveillance due to the art theft.

The case has never been solved, no arrests were ever made, and the paintings remain missing. There is still a $10 million reward for information leading to the reclamation of the artwork. The empty frames still hang in their original places on the walls of the museum, a spectacle of what was once lost.

Now, amateur detectives can take part in their own mystery. The show includes walking participation, where the audience will walk between five locations to gather evidence and potential clues. They will meet a series of improvisational characters, including con-men and art experts, who will give them clues and help the group solve the mystery of the art theft.

The show opens on the 13th of April and runs for three weeks. The show is social distancing-friendly and tickets can be bought from the website. Visit for more information.

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Josie Klakström is a true crime writer. Follow her at


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