5 Most Expensive Paintings Stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft

June 16, 2020

The mystery surrounding the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft, the single largest property theft in the world, remains unsolved for 30 years. On March 18, 1990, 13 of the Boston Museum works went missing in a heist that continues to obsess and stump investigators. 

In the early hours, a vehicle pulled up near the side entrance of the Museum and two men in police uniforms pushed the Museum buzzer. Stating they were responding to a disturbance, they requested to be let in. The guard who broke protocol and let them in and his other colleague were later found tied up in the basement of the Museum. 

The heist took only 81 minutes, during which museum motion detectors recorded the thieves' movements. From the Dutch Room, they took Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of GalileeA Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a small self-portrait , Vermeer’s The Concert, Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk, an ancient Chinese bronze Gu; five Degas drawings and a bronze eagle finial were taken from the Short Gallery; while Manet's Chez Tortoni was taken from the Blue Room.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft

Despite more than 30,000 leads, hunches, forensic tests, jail house confessions and interviews, the FBI is still no closer to getting any information that would lead to knowing the whereabouts of the Gardner works or identifying the thieves. The stolen art has been estimated to be worth $500 million, but some experts claim that the figure has since skyrocketed to $1 billion. The Gardner Museum is offering a reward of $10 million for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 works in good condition, while a separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the information that would result in return of the Napoleonic eagle finial.

Here are the 5 most expensive paintings stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft.

isabella stewart gardner museum boston  Editors’ Tip: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads—and a $5 million reward—none of the paintings have been recovered. Worth as much as $500 million, the missing masterpieces have become one of the nation's most extraordinary unsolved mysteries. After the death of famed art detective Harold Smith, reporter Ulrich Boser decided to take up the case. Exploring Smith's unfinished leads, Boser travels deep into the art underworld and comes across a remarkable cast of characters, including a brilliant rock 'n' roll thief, a gangster who professes his innocence in rhyming verse, and the enigmatic late Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. Boser becomes increasingly obsessed with the case and eventually uncovers startling new evidence about the identities of the thieves. A tale of art and greed, of obsession and loss, The Gardner Heist is as compelling as the stolen masterpieces themselves.

Featured image: Johannes Vermeer - The Concert (detail). All images Creative Commons.

Rembrandt van Rijn - A Lady and Gentleman in Black, 1633

Painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1633, A Lady and Gentleman in Black is probably the artist's first double portrait including both figures on the same canvas. Prior to this work, he usually created two separate canvases each picturing one member of the usually married couple.

Impressively large, it depicts a well-dressed husband and wife - the woman sitting in an elegant chair and the man towering over her. There is also another empty chair, forming the triangle with the couple - the shape of solidity and stability. Both dressed in black and white garb, their elegant clothes is adorned with amazingly detailed lacework, which was Rembrandt's specialty in this stage of his career. Placed against a neutral-colored background, the viewer's attention is immediately drawn to the couple.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn - A Lady and Gentleman in Black, 1633. Oil on canvas, 131.6 cm × 109 cm (51.8 in × 43 in). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Johannes Vermeer - The Concert, circa 1664

One of the total of 35 canvases that Johannes Vermeer produced during his lifetime, The Concert is generally considered the rarest and the most valuable of the lost treasures. A small painting, slightly more than two-feet square, it depicts a man and two women performing music - a young woman sitting at a harpsichord, a man playing the lute, and another woman singing. By the way the protagonists are dressed, we can conclude they are members of the upper bourgeoisie.

While at least nine other Vermeer's canvases include musical instruments, only three include three figures. Although it depicts the trio of music-makers, the atmosphere of the paintings is one of extreme quietude, imbued with the air of calm. The inside of the harpsichord lid is decorated with an Arcadian landscape, standing in contrast to the two paintings hanging on the wall to the right and left.

The work was estimated at over $200 million, earning it a prime spot on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list for art crimes. However, Otto Naumann, a senior vice president of Sotheby’s and a dealer in Old Masters for more than 30 years, suggest it is now worth nearly $500 million. 

Featured image: Johannes Vermeer - The Concert, circa 1664. Oil on canvas, 72.5 cm (28.5 in x 64.7 cm (25.4 in). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Édouard Manet - Chez Tortoni, 1879-1880

Painted between 1879 and 1880, Édouard Manet's Chez Tortoni depicts an unidentified gentleman wearing a top hat sitting at a table in the Cafe Tortoni de Paris while drawing on a sketchpad. On the table besides him, there is a half-empty glass of beer. Although executed with broad and tactile brushstrokes, the work exhibits a remarkable level of clarity.

Manet executed the work in his 40s, in his full maturity. A cult place, Cafe Tortoni de Paris was back in its heyday frequented by the likes of Renoir, Degas, Baudelaire, Duranty, Maupassant and Proust, among others.

The canvas belongs to a series of Manet's works depicting café society, forming a kind of social history of demimondaine Paris in the late 19th century.  

Featured image: Édouard Manet - Chez Tortoni, 1879-1880. Oil on canvas, 26 cm (10.2 in) x 34 cm (13.3 in). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt van Rijn - The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633

Rembrandt's only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee from 1633 depicts the miracle of Jesus calming the storm, specifically as it is described in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. According to the Biblical story, Jesus calms the sea and then teaches the disciples the importance of faith.

An intensely dramatic painting, full of meaning and special beauty, it depicts the moment of fear and terror of the disciples before the storm, in contrast with the tranquility of Christ. Playing with light, the artist draws our attention to the left side of the painting. Jesus is distinguished from the others by a subtle halo. The magnificent work does not only portray a situation of anguish, but the anguish itself. 

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn - The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Oil on canvas, 160 cm (62.9 in) x128 cm (50.3 in). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Govert Teuniszoon Flinck - Landscape with an Obelisk, 1638

A painting by Dutch artist Govert Teuniszoon FlinckLandscape with an Obelisk from 1638 features an obelisk streaked by sunlight on a dark and stormy day. The work was formerly attributed to Rembrandt. In the foreground, there is a huge tree with two miniature men under it having a conversation. The color palette is mostly composed of different browns and grays. 

Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian and adviser to Mrs. Gardner, called it “a work of art of exquisite, sweet pathos and profound feeling." The meaning of the obelisk itself is left to imagination. 

Featured image: Govert Teuniszoon Flinck - Landscape with an Obelisk, 1638. Oil on panel, 54.5 cm (21.4 in) x 71 cm (27.9 in). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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