Did the Gardner art thieves use this Guidebook as a shopping catalog?

Ben Zotto
7 min readApr 25, 2021

Some of the art works chosen in the 1990 heist have puzzled analysts. The Museum’s own self-published Guide offers some uncanny clues to the haul.

When I was a kid growing up in the Boston suburbs, we lived next door to the family of would-be art thief Brian McDevitt. He was briefly a suspect in arguably the most spectacular modern art heist: the overnight robbery of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in March of 1990. McDevitt almost certainly wasn’t involved, but even as a kid we heard whispers about it. The caper was a big deal.

The theft of thirteen works — including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer — has never been solved and the art never recovered, and the mystery has only grown in cultural signifance. A recent Netflix miniseries and a very good 2018 podcast series have gone deep into the 30-year-old story.

One of the enduring puzzles about the robbery is why the thieves took the specific works they did. The Rembrandts and Vermeer, sure. But they also took a Chinese vase, a bunch of Degas etchings, and a French flagpole topper. The museum contained far greater treasures close at hand. Why this selection?

The selection of stolen works, from Wikipedia.

I recently came across an older guidebook from the museum, and was stunned to find references that were extremely suggestive regarding the items stolen. Could the thieves — perhaps unschooled in the nuances of the value of art — have used the museum’s own guide as their shopping catalog?

This book, titled “Guide to the Collection,” was originally published in 1959, with a second edition from 1974. The copy I have is noted as a revision from 1984 — six years prior to the heist.

It’s a pocket-sized 115-page paperback put out by the Museum, presumably to be used by visitors while in the Gardner palazzo. The book is mostly just descriptive text of the more notable items in each space. It’s illustrated with postage-stamp black and white photography of only a small number of the works even described in it — typically the more important ones.

The Chinese Ku

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