Although he was only four when Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed, director Colin Barnicle has always been intrigued by the mystery of the world’s largest unsolved art heist. In the early morning hours after St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, two men dressed as cops talked their way into the Venetian-style building filled with priceless paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and decorative arts. After announcing, “Gentleman, this is a robbery,” the thieves tied up the museum’s two security guards, and spent 81 minutes cutting paintings—including works by Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet—out of their frames without ever tripping an alarm. They got away with 13 pieces then valued at about $200 million.
Thirty-one years and a $10 million reward later, the whereabouts of the art—now worth $500 million—remains unknown. Barnicle hopes laying out the “nuts and bolts” of one of his hometown’s most notorious crimes in the docuseries This Is A Robbery, out on Netflix April 7, “jogs something loose” to finally restore the missing canvases to the Gardner’s gallery walls.
As sons of former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle and Anne Finucane, Barnicle and his brother-slash-producing partner, Nick, grew up hearing about the robbery, which was often the topic of conversation at their parents’ dinner parties. “It kind of was just always on in the background,” Barnicle recently told Vanity Fair.
In 2015, the director began foregrounding the facts surrounding the theft while also producing documentaries about sports and music, including Billy Joel: New York State of Mind, which won four local New York Emmy Awards in 2018. He quickly discovered that due to its minimal security, the Gardner “was a known spot to hit.”
Though no forensic evidence, like fingerprints or hair, was collected the night of the burglary, Barnicle doesn’t blame the Boston Police. “This was the FBI’s case. This is on them,” he said. “They did not secure the crime scene the way they were supposed to.”
The investigation into the robbery turned up a slew of suspects. Security guard Richard Abath’s actions the night of the break-in were suspicious because he opened and shut the museum’s outside door about 15 minutes before the thieves showed up. A motion detector also showed that he was the only person in the room where Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” hung—the lone painting taken from that gallery. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Fisher says in the series that the robbery couldn’t have happened without inside information. But he also notes that if he could have charged someone, he would have.
“It seems like he did something odd,” Barnicle said about Abath opening the door. “He says he did it all of the time. But there’s no record of him ever doing it before.” Still, Barnicle doesn’t think he took the Manet. (The former guard declined to be interviewed for the series, and only provided written statements in response.)
Plenty of other unsavory characters—many with mob ties—hovered at the edge of the crime. Convicted art thief Myles Connor Jr.—who had previously stolen Rembrandts from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1975—had a solid alibi: he was in jail at the time of the crime. Still, former Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg speculates in the show that the stolen loot may have been stashed in Connor’s 40-foot trailer and sold off by his criminal caretaker William P. Youngworth III. Barnicle disagrees: “I think Myles was knowledgeable of the crime. But he did not have anything tangible from it, and neither did Youngworth.”
With no movement in the case by 1997, at the FBI’s behest, the Gardner increased its reward from $1 to $5 million (and doubled that in 2017). In 2013, the FBI announced that “members of a criminal organization” were behind the robbery—but they still hadn’t located the art. The series suggests two members of “made man” Carmelo Merlino’s crew, George Reissfelder and Lenny DiMuzio—both now dead—were the police impersonators who made off with masterpieces, including Rembrandt’s 1633 seascape “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Vermeer’s 1658 portrait “The Concert,” and Govaert Flinck’s 1638 “Landscape With Obelisk.”
“I think there was a shopping list for the Rembrandts,” Barnicle said of the crooks, who left behind much more valuable work. Rather than lingering in the museum, Barnicle believes the thieves felt trapped after a nearby holiday party broke up, and guests spilled out into the street. “It looks like [the burglars] had police radios on them and they were monitoring calls…. There was a noise complaint called in…. You can be dressed in a cop uniform, but it’s still pretty suspicious when you’re carrying rolled-up canvases.”