Isabella Stewart Gardner was, until the day of her death, an eccentric art collector, a less famous sort of Peggy Guggenheim, who in 1899 had a Venetian palace built in downtown Boston. On the outside, it was a functionally awful building, but on the inside, it looked leafy, with carpeted hallways and rooms. It was to give shelter to the only maritime landscape that Rembrandt painted, The storm on the Sea of Galilee, and to become, of course, a museum. A museum that should not change one iota – as he said in his will – because if it did, everything it contained had to be sent to Paris and auctioned. That museum was his work of art. And nothing should happen to him.
But something happened to him. In the mid-eighties a wave of assaults began in Boston, linked to the local mafia, led by two nationalities – the Irish and the Italian, of course, facing each other. Already then, a member of one of the groups tried to perpetrate a robbery in broad daylight at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, but did not succeed, although it did reveal the security problems of the institution: just a few cameras and sensors of movement, and a lax hiring guards that allowed a guy who celebrated New Year’s Eve there with his friends to continue working downtown.
What happened on March 18, 1990, the art robbery of the century, might not have happened if there hadn’t been a series of catastrophic coincidences. The main one, that the older night watchman was not working that night. “He would not have let the couple of [disfrazados] policemen ”, says a worker at a time of This Is A Heist: The World’s Biggest Art Theft (Netflix), a documentary series that reconstructs, in the manner of an Agatha Christie novel, what happened that night and the unusually clumsy investigation since then.
Because the most valuable part of the work, signed by Colin and Nick Barnicle, so full of witnesses and alleged culprits, is precisely the way it is built. The pair of brothers have been collecting the pieces of a puzzle for seven years that no one has yet solved. At dawn on that Sunday 31 years ago, one of the guards, a certain Rick – who appeared with his head absurdly wrapped in duct tape the next morning, as in a kind of joke between friends – opened the door to the couple of cops with fake mustaches who declared that this was a robbery and took 13 works of art, among them, The concert, by Vermeer, still considered the most valuable lost work of art in the world today (the reward offered for returning it is nine million euros, the largest in history). And the show began.
The information is dosed in such a way that the viewer enjoys traveling through time. What the Barnicle brothers shed light on is not only the particular case of the theft of those 13 works of art –some worthless as at first thought– but the lives of the kidnapped paintings. Because, do they have another life than to be sold to the highest bidder? If they have it.
As they theorize in the series, if the hood of a gang is in jail, he can ask one of his henchmen to steal a rembrandt to get him out of there. Myles Connor, the son of a policeman and notorious art thief from Massachusetts, had done it before and in the same state. A table can also serve as a guarantee to, for example, buy weapons, for example, the IRA, which needed to guarantee a huge shipment. What was he going to give in return? The vermeer most valuable lost in the world? Here the documentary takes off and leaves the extravagant night watchman who could have stayed with a monet.
Forensic medicine has changed a lot in these 31 years. No fingerprints were taken at that crime scene in 1990. Furthermore, some evidence, such as the duct tape, was lost. The police, their sources admit from the first minute, were not prepared for something like that. Robbery with violence in liquor stores? Anyone, but in a museum? Where do you start looking? This is a robbery it is an almost hypnotic document that describes the blind spot of a system that considers art and everything that surrounds it an inexplicable mystery and missing works, pieces of life that are still living somewhere.
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