Move Over ‘Murder Shows.’ This art heist documentary is sensational.
By Courtney Thomas
The thirteen works of art stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 have never been recovered. Today, visitors see empty frames where paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet once hung. This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist examines what happened the night of the theft, why the museum was so unprepared, and what has been uncovered so far in the now 30-year long investigation. The four part docuseries is filled with fascinating suspects, including a stoner security guard, a career art thief, and at least three gangsters named Bobby. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a fascinating story. As a guide to the case, it’s so thorough that someone may be able to pick up the trail and claim the 10 million dollar reward.
The series begins by explaining the unique institution that is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. From the outside it is a plain building, but inside three stories of galleries border a beautiful Venitian style courtyard. Each room was designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. Several staff members from 1990 speak, agreeing that “it’s not a museum, it’s her work of art.” This look at the museum is the only argument in the series for why the theft matters. The brief amount of context fails to communicate the academic importance of the paintings, why replicas aren’t a good solution and why art crime as a whole is far from victimless, erasing tons of information through black market trafficking. The series is more of a true crime thriller than an art history documentary, and the pace rapidly picks up once the focus shifts to the crime, the law enforcement response, and the decades worth of leads investigated by the FBI.
On the night of the theft, two thieves impersonated Boston Police officers using the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on the other side of the city as a distraction. They said they were investigating a disturbance, and after they were admitted to the museum, they subdued the guards and spent a whopping 81 minutes pilfering the galleries.
The documentary brings the crime to life with dramatisations, which are carefully shot so that the faces of the actors are never revealed, preserving the mystery. Never-before-seen photographs of the scene of the crime add a sense of realism, and driving music charges the story with suspense. After the crime, frames were strewn across the galleries and duct tape covered the guard’s faces as they awaited rescue. In This is a Robbery, art theft is revealed to be far less elegant than the way it is depicted in the movies.
A number of details complicate the case, but the documentary remains gripping as it sets the scene. A 3-D animated floor plan of the Gardner museum shows the route the thieves took, as indicated by the motion sensor alarms, but even this detail heightens the mystery as no alarm was triggered by the thieves’ presence in the only gallery with a missing painting on the first floor.
Frustratingly for viewers who hope to solve the mystery, the crime scene protocols of the 90s weren’t as developed as today’s forensic procedures. The Boston Police Department and FBI didn’t collaborate well, and the FBI was much more focused on an upcoming Cosa Nostra trial. No DNA evidence or fingerprints were recovered, leaving the door open to a number of complicated theories, which the series explores in depth. Central to these theories is just how difficult it would have been to fence the paintings.
As the robbery occurred in Boston, some of the theories center around the Irish mob, who speculators think might have wanted to use the paintings as a black market currency, exchanging them for weapons they would then send to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But an interview with a former member of the IRA pretty much rules out this theory. The charismatic Irishman looks back on the 90s and says it’s ludicrous. The political moment was so delicate that the Irish wouldn’t have been interested.
In addition to the thirteen paintings, a relatively worthless finial from a Napoleonic flag and a Chinese vase were among the stolen items. Might the thieves have been hired by a collector with specific tastes? Or might they have wanted the art for themselves? Neither is particularly likely. This case requires a deep dive into Boston’s colorful criminal underworld.
In the popular imagination, art thieves are something like the characters in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy. For Myles Connor, a rock’n’roll musician turned noteworthy art thief, it’s a pretty apt comparison. In the documentary, interviewed from a lawn chair on his simple horse farm, Connor looks like any other retiree. But if he knows where the paintings are, he’s not planning to reveal it.
Already a known art thief, Connor was under suspicion early in the investigation. However, he had an alibi for the night of the crime. He was in jail. Even if he is a red herring in the Gardner case, Connor’s activities might have started a trend. He stole a painting from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1975. When he returned it, he was able to negotiate his two two-year jail sentences into just one, halving the amount of time he would have to spend behind bars. Connor’s deal created the perception that a valuable painting was a get-out-of-jail-free card. If a gangster had one to return, it would make the feds more open to negotiation.
The final theory explored by the documentary profiles a crew of Italian gangsters. From Carmello Merlino, who ran a sort of cafe for mob members out of his auto shop, to Bobby Donati, a former associate of Myles Connor, to George Reissfelder, whose sister-in-law recalls seeing the stolen Manet on his apartment wall, many of the men reported to be involved are now dead.
Without the recovery of the stolen works, the documentary is missing a satisfying conclusion. The museum’s out of date security system made it an easy mark, and 30 years later, the missing paintings have likely been damaged by sub-optimal storage conditions, if they still exist at all. But, more information than ever before is now in the public’s hands. The documentary is a giant wanted poster. The lore of the heist may now take on a life of its own, bolstered in no small way by the captivating personalities whose interviews are the lifeblood of the documentary.