On entering the Dutch Gallery, the mood again changed. On the walls, empty frames hung. Their vacant centers were a painful tribute to the paintings that once occupied the space: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee of 1633 and Vermeer’s The Concert of a few years later. The Gardner Museum’s collection was still stocked with many great pieces of art, but a 1990 heist had left an enormous hole.
The US$200 million art heist, which remains unrecovered 30 years later (according to 1990 estimates, this was equivalent to A$258,000,000), is still one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century. Netflix’s four-part miniseries This is a Robbery delves deep into the myths and conjectures that surround this case. It provides insight into the criminal’s mind and the dark machinations of the art world.
Have you seen the paintings below?
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Memories and mistakes
The story is exciting, and the director, Colin Barnicle, takes us right into it with flashbacks and fast editing that introduces us to a large cast of characters. Anne Hawley is presented as the new museum director, who had only been in the position for six months when the robbery took place. We hear from guards, police officers, and local journalists who cover the story.
The thieves spent 81 minutes in the gallery removing paintings from their frames. They also released a small Rembrandt engraving and the finial of a Napoleonic flag.
A 1990 FBI photo of the crime scene at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Netflix
It is a fascinating television show to watch the contrast between the careful presentation of the details in the crime and the rough handling of artworks.
Hawley explains, “It seemed incomprehensible that they would do this even if the intention was to steal art.” The footage pans over the debris of the thieves’ actions, which are scattered across the gallery floor.
The series continues with security consultant Steve Keller discussing the museum’s poor protocol, as well as earlier failed robberies and vandalism attempts.
It was known that the museum was vulnerable. The museum’s state of disrepair also placed the artworks within its walls in danger.
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We also meet a cast of entertaining crooks. Myles Jnr is one of those outrageous characters. He once walked from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts carrying a Rembrandt.
There are also colorful Mafia members from Ireland and Italy who wear wires and stir spaghetti sauce. The mechanics of art thefts, which are used to fund drug sales and arms purchases by the IRA, are explored in the second narrative.
The list of criminals grows and branches over the four episodes until we lose sight of Rembrandts’, Vermeers’, Manets’, and Degas’s lost works.
Barnicle captivates us with the daring escapades central casting type crims, including Louis Royce of the Rossetti Gang and Bobby Donati. Also featured are David Turner, Anthony Romano, Carmelo, Merlino, and Robert Gentile.
Myles Connor Jr, the notorious art thief, knows more than what he is saying. Netflix
As the plot thickens, the theft and ultimate fate of the paintings is pushed to the right. The viewer might feel as if they’re watching The Sopranos with Gardner Museum announcements that they are offering rewards of $1 million, $2 million, $5 million, and $10 million to return priceless art.
The series is a large-scale appeal to the public for information — like the art theft episode in Crimestoppers.
Thirteen works are still missing, including a stolen Manet called Chez Tortoni. The new Netflix series mentions tantalizing glimpses of the painting. AP Photo/Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Read more: Trial over Picasso’s ‘gift’ to Handyman and the murky world of art crime.
No happy ending … yet
As we approach the end of this three-and-a-half-hour journey into the mystery, our attention shifts to the Gardner Museum and the sense of deep loss that still enchants the protagonists.
Each one has a different suggestion for where and who might have taken the 13 paintings.
A reporter claims to have been told that “something will shake loose when Robert Gentile passes away… someone will come forward”.
Others speculate that the works could be in Dublin or Australia, Saudi Arabia, France, etc. Robert Fisher, former assistant US attorney, says as the camera pans to the empty frame where Rembrandt’s Storm On The Sea Of Galilee once stood, “Until you see the paintings, all of this is just theory.”
This is a well-told story, even though it sometimes veers into true crime anecdotes. It’s definitely worth your investment.