The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist – The Polaroids

Thirteen works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. The artwork is still missing, and no one has ever been charged with the theft. Several attempts to negotiate the return of the artwork were made, none were successful. Myles Connor, William Youngworth, and Carmello Merlino all tried to negotiate the return of the artwork in exchange for leniency on other charges they were facing. None of these men were able to provide proof that they had access to the artwork, and they may have just been bluffing.

There have also been anonymous attempts to return the artwork and to prove that the artwork still exists. The first of these situations was in April 1994 when the Gardner Museum received and anonymous letter saying that the return of the paintings could be arranged for $2.6 million and full immunity. The letter had a New York postmark, and said that the artwork was being stored in another country. The letter did say that the artwork was being stored in archival conditions and that it had not been sold yet. The museum was told that they needed to act quickly, before the artwork was sold. In order to grant the immunity requested in the letter the Gardner Museum needed to involve the FBI.

The letter instructed the museum to indicate their interest in a ransom deal by having the number “1” inserted in the US-foreign dollar exchange listing for the Italian lira published in The Boston Sunday Globe on May 1, 1994. The Globe agreed to cooperate with the museum and the FBI, publishing a “1” a few spaces in front to the actual US dollar exchange rate for the lira. It seems that the author of the letter intended for The Globe to publish an incorrect currency exchange rate for the lira.

The next week the Gardner Museum received a second letter from the anonymous individual. The letter said, ”YOU CANNOT HAVE BOTH. Right now I need time to both think and start the process to insure confidentiality of the exchange.” The letter said that even if the author felt that a negotiation was impossible they would write again with some hints regarding the location of the artwork. But the museum never received any more letters from the anonymous writer.

Another strange incident relating to the Gardner heist occurred in March 2004. A plain envelope with no return address was sent to ABC News’ New York office containing two Polaroid photos of the stolen Rembrandt etching placed on top of the front page of the Boston Globe. The missing Rembrandt etching that appeared to be in the photos is only the size of a postage stamp, which would make it difficult to authenticate the etching. The photos were likely a hoax since nothing ever came of it. No one contacted ABC to say that they sent the photos, and no one contacted authorities or the museum to return the etching or the other stolen artworks. The explanation could be that multiple images are made from an etching, and it might have just been another copy of the same self portrait in the photos.

What was the meaning behind the letters and the photographs? Where they connected? Where these incidents just a hoax? The investigation of the Gardner Museum heist has taken many odd twists and turns in the past 23 years. Without much information on the location of the artwork, investigators can be vulnerable to false information. The anonymous letter may have been a genuine attempt to return the artwork. Maybe the author of the letter became afraid that immunity would not be granted and they would be held responsible for the robbery, and they decided that selling the artwork was the easier way to get it out of their hands. Unfortunately both the letters and the photographs became dead ends for the investigators working to return the artwork to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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