Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist


In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.


In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished without a trace.

Many of the foremost intellectuals of the early 20th century frequented the same café in Vienna.

Sources for our feature on the Gardner heist:

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, 2008.

Stephen Kurkjian, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, 2015.

Michael Brenson, “Robbers Seem to Know Just What They Want,” New York Times, March 19, 1990.

Peter S. Canellos, Andy Dabilis, and Kevin Cullen, “Art Stolen From Gardner Museum Was Uninsured, Cost of Theft Coverage Described as Prohibitive,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1990, 1.

Robert Hughes, “A Boston Theft Reflects the Art World’s Turmoil,” Time 135:14 (April 2, 1990), 54.

Peter Plagens, Mark Starr, and Kate Robins, “To Catch an Art Thief,” Newsweek 115:14 (April 2, 1990), 52.

Scott Baldauf, “Museum Asks: Does It Take a Thief to Catch a Degas?,” Christian Science Monitor 89:193 (Aug. 29, 1997), 3.

Steve Lopez and Charlotte Faltermayer, “The Great Art Caper,” Time 150:21 (Nov. 17, 1997), 74.

“Missing Masterpieces,” Security 37:6 (June 2000), 14-18.

Robert M. Poole, “Ripped From the Walls (And the Headlines),” Smithsonian 36:4 (July 2005), 92-103.

Paige Williams, “The Art of the Story,” Boston Magazine, March 2010.

Randy Kennedy, “20th Anniversary of a Boston Art Heist,” New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Mark Durney and Blythe Proulx, “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction,” Crime, Law and Social Change 56:115 (September 2011).

Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg, “A New Effort in Boston to Catch 1990 Art Thieves,” New York Times, March 18, 2013.

Tom Mashberg, “Isabella Stewart Gardner: 25 Years of Theories,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2015.

Shelley Murphy, “Search for Artworks From Gardner Heist Continues 25 Years Later,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “Arrest by F.B.I. Is Tied to $500 Million Art Theft From Boston Museum, Lawyer Says,” New York Times, April 17, 2015.

Serge F. Kovaleski and Tom Mashberg, “Reputed Mobster May Be Last Link to Gardner Museum Art Heist,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.

“New Video in 25-Year-Old Art Heist at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum,” New York Daily News, Aug. 6, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “25 Years After Gardner Museum Heist, Video Raises Questions,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Rodrigue Ngowi and William J. Kole, “2 Suspects in Boston Art Theft Worth $500 Million Are Dead, FBI Says,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Sarah Kaplan, “Surveillance Video Raises Questions — and Possible Clues — in 25-Year-Old Museum Mystery,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Justin Peters, “Why Is Stolen Art So Hard to Find?,” Slate, Aug. 14, 2015.

Erick Trickey, “The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?,” Boston Magazine, March 13, 2016.

Shelley Murphy and Stephen Kurkjian, “Six Theories Behind The Stolen Gardner Museum Paintings,” Boston Globe, March 18, 2017.

Graham Bowley, “Gardner Museum Doubles Reward for Recovery of Stolen Masterpieces,” New York Times, May 23, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Stubborn Stand-Off Over Stolen Gardner Museum Art Could End With Sentencing of Hartford Gangster,” Hartford Courant, Sept. 5, 2017.

Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clock Is Ticking on $10 Million Reward in Gardner Art Heist,” New York Times, Dec. 26, 2017.

Camila Domonoske, “Got the Scoop on the Gardner Museum Art Heist? You Have 4 Days to Earn $10 Million,” The Two-Way, National Public Radio, Dec. 27, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Museum Extends $10 Million Reward in Notorious Boston Gardner Museum Art Heist,” Hartford Courant, Jan. 11, 2018.

Colin Moynihan, “Gardner Museum Extends $10 Million Reward for Information in Art Heist,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018.

Nadja Sayej, “Will Boston’s $500m Art Heist Ever Be Solved?,” Guardian, Jan. 19, 2018.

Leah Silverman, “Suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison,” Town & Country, Feb. 28, 2018.

Sarah Cascone, “Paintings Stolen in America’s Biggest Art Heist Have Returned to Their Frames — Thanks to Augmented Reality,” Artnet, March 26, 2018.

“Learn About the Theft,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (accessed April 29, 2018).

Listener mail:

Derek Lowe, “Understanding Antidepressants — or Not,” Science Translational Medicine, Feb. 12, 2018.

Johnathan Frunzi, “From Weapon to Wonder Drug,” Hospitalist, February 2007.

“Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society (accessed May 17, 2018).

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, With the Author’s Additions, From the Athenaeum, 1872.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, “Medicinal Notes: Honey Works Better Than Cow-Dung,” Independent, May 4, 1999.

Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus, 1998.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!