A famous art heist left a few walls in Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum stark empty, but that has not deterred tourists from visiting the place even today…

If your name is Isabella, chances are you will be given a royal welcome and a free entry into a charming and unique museum in Boston in the U.S. No, my name is not Isabella but I heeded the advice of a friend who said I must visit this unique museum. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum sits quietly in Fenway, in Boston, a place reclaimed from a smelly swamp and made into an upmarket, much sought-after area. Not many tourists visit the Isabella Stewart Museum but it is worth a visit.

No changes

Isabella was a society woman in the late 1800s, who shocked the Boston purists with her unconventional behaviour. She collected precious art and created a home for these collections. Her will stipulated that nothing should be changed, exchanged, sold or added to the galleries. As a result, the walls still remain empty even after the great robbery. In 1990, two men came at midnight disguised as policemen, handcuffed the guards on duty and in 81 minutes ripped a Vermeer, three Rembrandts — including his only seascape, five Degas drawings, and a Monet from their wall placements. This was one of the biggest art heists in history.

Over the years, the theft has produced many books and articles about who pulled it off. There is a reward of $ 5million for anyone who can help get the art works back in an undamaged condition. Now the statute of limitations has passed for prosecution of the theft itself and the attorney in Boston now says he will not prosecute anyone who has the paintings and offers to return them.

Since the discovery of the theft, the FBI and private detectives have tracked hundreds of leads and dealt with dozens of intermediaries for individuals who contend they can lead investigators to the missing artwork. Invariably, the trails have come to dead ends, as information could not be corroborated or tipsters proved to be fakers, with an eye only for the reward money of $ 5 million. In late April 1994, the museum received a message that Gardner officials regarded as the most promising lead ever in the case. An anonymous letter writer said he could facilitate the return of the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million and full immunity from prosecution for the thieves and those who held the paintings. Because the overture involved a request for immunity from prosecution, the museum turned the letter, postmarked in New York, over to the FBI. The letter writer showed considerable knowledge of the paintings and of the international art world. He said the stolen paintings were being stored in archival conditions, and had not yet been sold. The writer proposed a clandestine way for the museum to respond. If the Gardner was open to negotiating a ransom deal, it should send a signal by arranging to have the numeral “1” inserted in the US-foreign dollar exchange listing for the Italian lira that would be published in The Boston Sunday Globe on May 1, 1994. And, in fact, that Sunday, the numeral “1” was listed a few spaces in front of the actual US dollar exchange rate for the lira.

Matthew V. Storin, editor of The Globe in 1994, said he was told of the letter's contents and agreed to insert the numeral — being careful not to make the currency listing itself inaccurate — at the request of Richard S. Swensen, the special agent in charge of the FBI Boston office.

The following week, the museum received a second letter. The letter writer was encouraged to see that the museum was interested in negotiating an exchange but was alarmed by the aggressive reaction by federal, state, and local law enforcement. “Right now I need time to both think and start the process to insure confidentiality of the exchange.” And then he never wrote to the museum again.

Investigators have also sought clues to the identity of the thieves in the particular objects they stole, and those they left behind. They wonder, for example, why the men took pen-and-ink sketches by Degas from the Short Gallery and left behind a far more valuable Michelangelo nearby. The motion detectors also show that the thieves never bothered to go to the museum's third floor, where the most valuable piece in the museum's collection — Titian's “Europa” — hangs. Where the paintings were, empty frames now fill the museum's walls. But, while there is sadness at the loss, the museum has recovered, say regular visitors. The museum has become “the vibrant centre for the arts it was in Gardner's day.”

Planned art

Isabella Stewart Gardner (April 14, 1840 – July 17, 1924) was a flamboyant woman. She was one of Boston's most exciting figures, known in the society papers as “Mrs. Jack.” Her surprising appearance at a 1912 concert (at a very formal Boston Symphony) wearing a white headband emblazoned with “Oh, you Red Sox” was reported to have “almost caused a panic”. After her husband's death in 1898, Gardner began work on her museum. She modelled it on the Renaissance palaces of Venice and Italy. The building surrounds a glass-covered garden courtyard, the first of its kind in the U.S. Gardner intended the second and third floors to be galleries. She lived on the fourth floor when in residence.

Gardner insisted that the galleries be designed as a palatial home, not a museum. She left a will in which she stipulated that the displays should never be altered. In one gallery is a painting of her, as she steps in from a balcony with her jewellery swaying in the movement. At the end of the visit, in the last gallery, is a beautiful painting of Isabella Stewart Gardner in a black dress. It looks like she placed herself there to take leave of the visitors to her home.