The Gardner Heist

One museum, two thieves, 13 works of art. Reward money? $5 million. Getting the art back: priceless.

Cheztortoni Manet
Chez Tortoni, by Eduard Manet. Stolen from the Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990.

Famed nineteenth-century arts patron Isabella Gardner was a woman who knew what she wanted—in life and in death. Before she passed away in 1924, she stipulated in her will that nothing in the museum she created should ever be significantly altered. True to her intent, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remained largely unchanged for 66 years, until a fateful night in March 1990 when a pair of thieves swiped more than a dozen pieces from her collection, leaving empty picture frames where world-famous masterpieces were once displayed.

Nineteen years later, the case remains unsolved and the stolen art remains missing, much to the chagrin of the museum’s directors, who are offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to the return of the works. In the meantime, author Ulrich Boser has published a new book titled “The Gardner Heist” (Smithsonian Books), in which he reveals evidence that a Boston mobster named David Turner was one of the men responsible for the theft. Earlier this week, Failure took the opportunity to interview Boser about the crime and his new revelations.

How did you become interested in the Gardner heist?

I wrote a story for U.S. News and World Report about an art detective named Harold Smith—one of the world’s most famous art detectives. He had recovered lost Renoir's, exposed forged Da Vinci's, and tracked down stolen Matisse's. At the time of my article, he had been working very hard on the Gardner case—hunting down leads for years—all the while suffering from a terrible case of skin cancer. When I met him, he had an eye patch and a prosthetic nose; he was literally falling apart. After he passed away, I decided to pick up where he left off and work the case.

How did the thieves loot the museum? 

They dressed up like cops, wearing full police uniforms, including the hats, badges, and even the little pins police officers wear on their lapels. They advised one of the night watchmen that there was a disturbance inside the museum, and the guard [in a breach of museum policy] let them in. They looted the gallery for over an hour and stole a Vermeer, three Rembrandt's, and five works by Degas, among others. Today experts believe the paintings are worth as much as $500 million. It remains the largest art theft in history. 

How do you think Isabella Gardner would have reacted to news of the theft? 

She was a very passionate, flamboyant woman who saw art as something very personal and intimate, and I think she’d be outraged. It should make us all outraged. It’s easy to say it’s just a case of a wealthy old woman losing a few things—what’s the big deal? But the stolen paintings are masterpieces, and if they remain missing, no one will ever see them. That’s a tragedy. 

Tell me about the security measures the museum had in place at the time of the theft. 

The museum was not secure. It had only two security guards, one of whom later admitted to smoking marijuana before he got to work. And it had motion detectors, but that was about it. At that point in time, security was not particularly good at any of the museums in the [Boston] area and we saw a lot of art thefts happening. 

Since then the Gardner has made a huge effort to improve security. Obviously, they don’t discuss their efforts publicly, but from what I can gather it is quite secure today. 

What happened to the night watchman you refer to as “Ray Abell”? Was he fired?

He left [the museum] shortly after the theft. He’s living in upstate Vermont now, and not long ago he was called in front of a grand jury, but it didn’t lead to anything.

What kind of interaction did you have with Abell in the course of your research? 

I was able to track him down, but he did not want to talk. And that’s where we left it. 

There are a lot of curiosities about his role: Why did he let the thieves in? And why did he step away from the panic button? I think we can say with a fair degree of certainty that the thieves had an inside connection. They were inside the museum for over an hour and walked out with very specific items—like security tapes. But I never found enough evidence to claim that Abell was involved. 

What happened to the other security guard on duty at the time—“Ralph Helman”?

Helman was less remarkable. The thieves threw him against a wall, handcuffed him, and put him downstairs, so he had less interaction with them. Afterwards, he passed a lie detector test. Helman has since moved on with his life. 

There have been countless high-profile thefts in recent years. What measures could museums take to better protect their artwork? 

Certainly museums could implement stronger measures. There are very specific high-tech things they could do, like putting small GPS trackers on valuable pieces. They could also pay security guards more money, because for the most part they aren’t paid much more than burger-flippers. But museums are chronically short of funding—especially nowadays. And all these institutions feel tensions about money versus protecting their art. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want a museum to look like a bank. You want to have it look like a museum and be intimate—a place where visitors can approach art. After a thief stole The Scream [from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway], he left behind a note saying “Thank you for the poor security.” When the museum got The Scream back, it installed a piece of bulletproof glass over the work, and museum-goers complained that they couldn’t see the brush strokes anymore.

Based on your research, who do you believe is responsible for the Gardner heist? 

I believe that a Boston gangster named David Turner was one of the thieves. He’s a very dangerous individual, and I think he will go down in the history books alongside people like “Whitey” Bulger and Albert DeSalvo [the Boston Strangler] as one of the most notorious criminals to come out of Boston. Investigators believe he helped operate a million dollar cocaine ring, and that he murdered as many as a half-dozen people. They also believe he was behind the [1991] robbery of the Bull & Finch [the Boston bar that inspired the NBC sitcom Cheers]. 

For one, I uncovered an eyewitness—in the book I refer to him as “Jerry Stratberg”—who gave a very specific description of the thieves. I also uncovered evidence that Turner’s underworld boss—Carmelo Merlino—twice tried to return the paintings, suggesting Turner’s involvement. Finally, when I went to Turner I said, “Look at all this evidence.” He claimed he had no role in the heist, but at the same time suggested I put his picture on the cover of my book. 

Where is Turner now? 

He is serving 38 years for armed robbery. Some people have pointed out that if he committed this heist, why hasn’t he returned the paintings? After all, paintings are widely considered to be a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I believe that the thieves lost control of the art somehow and no longer have access. And without access it’s difficult to use the works as a bargaining chip. 

Can you speculate where the artwork is today? 

Most likely it’s stashed somewhere in the Boston area. There is this Hollywood notion that there might be a billionaire somewhere who has the works in his basement, where he studies the paintings while wearing a tuxedo and holding a snifter of scotch. But there is no evidence of that. I think we’re talking about run-of-the-mill criminals, not a real-world Pierce Brosnan.

How has the experience of visiting the Gardner changed since the theft? 

When you go there and see the empty frames, you can’t help but sit down and talk about what happened. But the museum has moved on. It has done a great job opening up to different audiences and it is also planning an expansion. 

But it’s important to see the museum as a whole, because that’s what Isabella Gardner herself wanted. She saw the museum as her own work of art. It was created as an entity, rather than simply a museum.

Official Web site of the Gardner Museum