What is the highest-value art heist in history?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. Our story is going to start with the highest value art heist in history. That's a pretty good place, right?

Katie Lambert: It's also a story about mustaches.

Sarah Dowdey: From there, it's going to take us all the way back to turn-of-the-century Boston with a socialite art collector who love boxing, and the House of Worth, and baseball. She ends up building one of the most beautiful art collections in the country, so we have a lot to talk about, something for everyone today.

Katie Lambert: We're going to set our scene, which is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It's this quiet, tucked-away Venetian place on the Fenway in Boston. It's March 18th, 1990, as Saint Patrick 's Day revelers are coming back on their way home, and at 1:24 a.m., the museum's buzzer sounds.

Sarah Dowdey: The guards look out to see what looks like two Boston policemen outside wearing almost comically large mustaches. We kind of thought of the hot cops here!

Katie Lambert: From "Arrested Development."

Sarah Dowdey: But the policemen say they need to check out a reported disturbance, so the guards let them in. Minutes later, they're cuffed, bound and duct taped, and after shutting off the video cameras, the thieves head up to the museum's Dutch room.

Katie Lambert: Their first target is an early self-portrait by Rembrandt, but it's a heavy panel in this heavy gilt frame, and it won't come out, so they just leave that one on the floor.

Sarah Dowdey: The canvas Rembrandts are a little easier to deal with, though. The thieves slash them out of their frames, which is almost worse than The Book of Kels being written in, I think. They run off with "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee," and "A Lady and Gentleman in Black," two Rembrandts that are gone now.

Katie Lambert: Next is Vermeer's "The Concert," that they take from an easel, and then a Govaert Flinck.

Sarah Dowdey: Then they move on with these big works and take another Rembrandt, a little tiny etching about the size of a postage stamp, and a bronze Chinese beaker before passing by all these other amazing works, a Botticelli, a Raphael, a Fra Angelico, before taking five drawings by Degas.

Katie Lambert: All of this happens under the John Singer Sargent portrait of the museum's founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Sarah said in a movie, you would have to film it with her eyes in the portrait. She's watching the whole thing.

Sarah Dowdey: And then her ghost would come and haunt them or something. They try to take a flag of Napoleon's imperial guard, but they can't get it either, so they just end up taking the little bronze finial with an eagle at the top. The final thing they take is a Manet oil, which I kind of awesome by the way, if you look it up. It's this guy riding in this enormous top hat.

Katie Lambert: They don't touch Titian's "Europa," even though it's the most valuable thing in the museum. They spend 90 minutes inside, this whole time. They tell the guards, "You'll be hearing from us in about a year."

Sarah Dowdey: But now it's 20 years later. There have been offers of immunity, a $5 million reward, and all of this art, which s valued at $200 million to $500 million, is just gone.

Katie Lambert: So how did so much priceless art, these old masters, high Renaissance paintings, famous American works, really extensive Asian collection, how did they all end up in this beautiful, tiny Venetian mansion with a lush, enclosed courtyard, fountains, and statuary? You should look it up online. It's really gorgeous. That's because for nearly 40 years, Boston had a really great collector: the socialite, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Sarah Dowdey: Isabella Stewart was born in 1840 in New York City, and her father was a wealthy merchant. Her family even claimed dissent from the royal Stewarts, but that's kind of a dubious claim.

Katie Lambert: That's just one of those things that people say.

Sarah Dowdey: Who wouldn't like to be related to Mary, Queen of Scots, right?

Katie Lambert: She was educated in private schools in New York and Paris, and she befriended Julia Gardner abroad. She eventually married her friend's older brother, John Gardner, known as Jack, in 1860, and they moved to Beacon Street in Boston together.

Sarah Dowdey: But her entry into the art world was partly brought on by a personal tragedy. Their son, John Gardner the Third, known as Jackie, died when he was two years old of pneumonia. She falls into a deep depression and gets really sick. Her doctor recommends that Jack take her traveling, so they go to Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna, and Paris. By the time she comes back, she's feeling a lot better. They've also started to pick up little pretty things along the course of their travels and bringing them back to their Beacon Hill home.

Katie Lambert: They don't have any more children, although they do raise their three orphaned nephews. They travel even more extensively after that. the Middle East, central Europe, Asia, all around the United States, although perhaps unsurprisingly considering the museum's design, their favorite spot was Venice, where they stayed at the Palazzo Barbaro.

Sarah Dowdey: Isabella is a very social woman, too. Don't think of just her and her husband off on these private travels all the time. The museum's archives actually have 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents, so she was a busy lady.

Katie Lambert: She's really social, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's popular with the Boston Brahmins. She's different. She's got all this traveling. She's mingling with American ex-Pats like Henry James, Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler. She's generally very extravagant, spending thousands of dollars on these paintings, Charlesworth clothing, jewels, so she's an outsider.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. She's never totally accepted by that society, but she's so amazing, and she cuts her own profile in it. Who wouldn't want to hang out with her?

Katie Lambert: Sarah loves her.

Sarah Dowdey: I know. She's really great. One critic wrote that she was the most dashing of fashion's local signatures who could order the whole symphony orchestra to her house for a private musical. There you go.

Katie Lambert: Her tastes were really broad. It wasn't just that she was interested in the arts. She was also really into the Red Sox, boxing, hockey, Harvard football, and horse races. She had a variety of tastes.

Sarah Dowdey: But it doesn't take long for her to get beyond picking up pretty little souvenirs on her travels and get into really serious art collecting. She does this by the mid-1890s and starts hanging up all her paintings at her Beacon Hill house, leaning the extras on chairs. So you can imagine, "Oh, gosh, where am I even going to put this Rembrandt I just bought?"

Katie Lambert: She has an advisor, too, Bernardo Berenson, who does a lot of her buying. She has also befriended some influential people in the Eastern art world, like Okakura Kakuzo, who's famous for writing The Book of Tea and helping to preserve Japanese artistic styles. Today there's a copy of the book at the museum.

Sarah Dowdey: Her first major old-master purchase comes in 1892, and it's a Vermeer, "The Concert," and it's eventually stolen in the heist. It cost her just over $6,000. This is kind of weird to think of now. I guess you imagine old master's paintings always being expensive and in high demand, but that's not really the case. In 1892, this was a pretty progressive purchase, and she heads off a trend. A few years later, American buyers think American industrialists with a lot of money are snatching up all the old-master paintings they can.

Katie Lambert: You told me something cool from a book you were reading about grain and paintings.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. It was a book by Cynthia Saltzman called Old Masters, New World. I kind of want to read it now. she said that a lot of this rush on European art, specifically old masters' works that were being held in England, came because the English starting importing American grain. Consequently, their prices fell, and their land value fell. You have all these old lords who aren'

t making rent anymoreKatie Lambert: They're feeling the pinch.

Sarah Dowdey: Meanwhile, their inheritance takes are going up. Their propriety taxes are going up, and they're more willing to sell off the old Rembrandt they have in the manor.

Katie Lambert: Meanwhile, of course, we have our American tycoons getting fabulously rich, but also wanting to cultivate culture. It might remind you of our Hearst podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: Very much Hearst. And because Americans are building all these new, big museums, they need art to fill them up with. This, in turn, influences generations of American artists who are able to go see these great works from old masters from the Italian Renaissance, and not have to go all the way to Europe to see a painting.

Katie Lambert: Gardner's not just about the old masters though. She's not your average art collector. She wrote to Berenson in 1900, "You know, or rather you don't know, that I adore Giotto and really don't adore Rembrandt. I only like him." He wrote back, "I am not anxious to have you own braces of Rembrandts like any vulgar millionaire." Sarah is a big Giotto fan as well.

Sarah Dowdey: I love Giotto.

Katie Lambert: So she liked that.

Sarah Dowdey: This is another point in Isabella's favor for me. Her love for Italian Renaissance art makes her buy Botticelli's "Death of Lucrezia" for $15,000. That's actually the first Botticelli to come to the United States. She likes contemporary art. We already mentioned she's friends with Singe Sargent and Whistler. She sees herself not just as a woman decorating her home and kind of fitting in to that Victorian standard of - I don't know - Victorian realm for women, but more like a Renaissance patron of the arts, kind of like Lorenzo de Medici. More specifically, Isabella D'Este, who we mentioned in our Catherine podcast recent!

Katie Lambert: In 1886, her friend, Henry James, takes her to Singer Sargent's London studio to see the "Madame X," which is a very famous and very lovely painting. He does a head-on, full body painting of her in front of a Venetian brocade, which James describes as a Byzantine Madonna with a halo, and Sargent displays it as "Woman, an Enigma."

Sarah Dowdey: It really does look like a halo. The brocade's pattern is directly behind her head. It's pretty cool. But after Gardner's husband died in 1898, her collecting took a different turn, and she started to build a museum. She wanted to make her private space, her Beacon Hill home with paintings leaning on chairs, into a public space where everybody could come and appreciate her works of art. She helps with the design, with the construction. She takes a very active role in the building of this museum.

Katie Lambert: It kind of reminded us of the Hearst castle because it has this mix of styles. You walk into one room that's decorated in a certain way and then into another that's completely different. All of this faces in on a gorgeous courtyard with windows and balconies that honestly look like they'd be in a Capulet palazzo.

Sarah Dowdey: Juliet's going to lean out of one of the balconies at any second. The museum opens to the public in 1903, and she has a phoenix above the door along with a coat of arms. I guess her own personal motto, which is C'est mon plaisir, which I like that. It's a pretty bold statement to make at the gate of your museum.

Katie Lambert: It is. And she slows down on the collecting later in her life to try to leave the museum with a nice endowment. When she died in 1924 after a series of strokes, she'd saved up $1 million for the museum with enough left over for charitable donations for the prevention of cruelty to children and to animals. The museum was given to Boston as a public institution with a catch.

Sarah Dowdey: "Nothing can be changed, rearranged, added, or removed," although in 2009, a Massachusetts court did decide that there could be an addition made by Renzo Piano who did the High Museum addition here in Atlanta. The short story is if you go to the Gardner museum today, it's going to look exactly like Isabella Stewart Gardner intended it to look. It's her house. It's her museum, except -

Katie Lambert: That of course, the 1990 thieves weren't so kind as to follow her wishes. So when you enter the Dutch room, there are gaping frames where masterpieces should be.

Sarah Dowdey: So that brings us back to our heist and the question: Where are Gardner's missing masterpieces?

Katie Lambert: There's a good chance they've actually been destroyed by now. When Sarah was explaining this to me, she said that sometimes art was too hot to unload, which I loved, because apparently she has a secret life which I don't know about.

Sarah Dowdey: It makes me sound like a hot cop.

Katie Lambert: They're probably part of the dark, shadowy art black market where art is often used as collateral instead of cash for drugs and guns.

Sarah Dowdey: Which I had no idea that art would be collateral. According to Alexandra Smith, who worked with the art loss register, it keeps this huge, long record of all the hundreds of thousands of artworks that are missing, stolen. She says that with tighter banking regulations, it has become difficult for people to put big chunks of money in financial institutions without getting noticed, so now thieves go out and steal a painting, so it's easy cash, I guess.

Katie Lambert: We want to make it clear that most thefts aren't as glamorous as, say, the 2002 heist in Paraguay where thieves dug an 80-foot tunnel, or our Gardner heist with the false mustaches.

Sarah Dowdey: It's not the Thomas Crown affair.

Katie Lambert: No. According to a Smithsonian article by Robert Pool, it's usually just someone with inside access who lifts a stored work and walks off, because of course most museums don't have their whole collection out. A lot of it's in storage.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Imagine a print that's in a museum's basement. Nobody thinks anyone will notice.

Katie Lambert: Since the Gardner heist is ostensibly the highest profile job in the world, there have been tons of leads, tips, and bizarro theories, some of which we'll tell you.

Sarah Dowdey: One is that the IRA staged it to use as a bargaining chip for jailed members. This is another thing if you think of artworks being used as cash, they can also be sometimes used as get-out-of-jail free cards because -

Katie Lambert: There's immunity.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Because authorities will want to get the artwork back so desperately, they'll offer immunity to anybody involved.

Katie Lambert: Another idea is that it was panned out by a musician who had performed with Roy Orbison before he was nabbed for another theft.

Sarah Dowdey: Another is that the artworks are hidden in Ireland's West Country, which is a theory -

Katie Lambert: This is my favorite.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. This is very strange. It's a theory developed in part because so many of the stolen goods were kind of horsey in theme, like the Degas sketches are all equestrian subjects. Since the Irish love horses so much, maybe there's a connection.

Katie Lambert: Some also have said that it was taken as security by Boston crime boss, James Whitey Bulger, with the help of compromised FBI agents. Sarah, you know a little more about that one than I do.

Sarah Dowdey: Bulger and the local FBI office did work tighter. They worked together to bring down an Italian crime family, which consequently also Bulger's main competitor in Boston. It leads to him buying off some of his FBI handlers and an FBI superv isor, John Connelly. Bulger is actually still one of the FBI's ten most wanted fugitives, and he's been charged with racketeering, conspiracy, narcotics distribution, and 19 counts of murder, so people think he's the only guy into Boston at the time who would've been able to get those paintings out of the country since he had this FBI connection. Our latest word comes from April, 2010 in The Boston Globe. That's that the FBI was hot on the trail of the art, which this time was being held by a Corsican gang, but that bureaucratic in-fighting and an inability for the FBI to work with their French counterparts blew the whole thing up.

Katie Lambert: In conclusion, the art is still missing. We hope it's being well cared for and that someday it will find its way back to its lovely home in Boston.

Sarah Dowdey: Meanwhile, there's plenty of neat stuff to see at the museum, and it now carries much better theft insurance, and a much more intense security system than it used to. Another side note, if your name is Isabella, you can go to the museum for free.

Katie Lambert: We might need to change our names and go visit. We have a quote, our final quote, from Berenson on Gardner, which I will let you read, Sarah, since you love her so much.

Sarah Dowdey: "She lives at a rate and intensity and with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin, and shadowy."

Katie Lambert: And that's the final word on Isabella Stewart Gardner. That brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: This is a special edition of real mail, this time from Jill in Minneapolis. She sent us a pretty funny postcard that just says "Hello, everyone" on the front. She sent it in honor of National Card and Letter-Writing Month, and suggested we do a podcast on the Pony Express or the USPS. What do you all think? Do you like those ideas?

Katie Lambert: You should let us know at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. We also have an unorthodox listener mail. I got a text from my old boss in my old bartending days, Chris, who said that he and his little son, Finn, were big fans of the podcast, so a shout out to Chris and Finn. If you'd like to follow us on Twitter, you can find us at MissedinHistory. We also have a Facebook fan page that we upate fairly frequently, and we have an article recommendation for you today: "Five Impressive Art Heists," which you can find if you search on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit www.HowStuffWorks.com. Be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the www.HowStuffWorks.com home page.