More than 30 years ago, a priceless Rembrandt painting titled “Christ in the Storm of the Sea of Galilee” and 12 other works were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in one of the biggest, most brazen, most captivating and most confounding art heists ever.
Today, that Rembrandt is hidden away but on display in a palace in Saudi Arabia. Or maybe it’s somewhere in Canada, South America or Japan or France or Jamaica, or in the basement of a church in South Boston or buried in the backyard of some old gangster’s house. Perhaps the most likely and certainly saddest scenario of all: These beautiful and irreplaceable works were destroyed and discarded by some person(s) who had upwards of $500 million in art on their hands, and couldn’t figure out a way to sell them without getting caught.
We don’t know. Maybe nobody knows. If anybody connected to the heist is still alive and DOES know, he ain’t talking. Yet even though the case remains unsolved, the four-part Netflix true crime documentary series is a dazzling mash-up of the usual elements that go into these increasingly popular docu-programs: archival news footage and crime scene photos; audio recordings from informants; grainy security cam footage; well-crafted graphics mapping out the timeline and the locales for various key events; interviews with a number of investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, eyewitnesses and journalists; and stylish re-creations of events from long ago. “This Is a Robbery” raises more questions than it answers, but those questions are deeply intriguing.
Filmmakers and brothers Colin and Nick Barnicle demonstrate a keen eye for dramatic storytelling from the very start, as “This Is a Robbery” plays out like a non-fiction version of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” complete with a stirring soundtrack and a nifty twist or two every once in a while. In the first chapter, we go inside the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a nondescript building with a stunningly gorgeous courtyard hidden inside that looks like something from the Renaissance, and beautifully appointed galleries, each with its own theme, on multiple floors. In the very early hours of March 18, 1990, with the night still black, two men dressed as Boston Police officers knocked on the door of the museum, talked their way inside, bound and gagged the security guards, and made off with some 13 artworks, including the aforementioned Rembrandt, along with paintings by Vermeer, Degas and Manet, an ancient Chinese beaker and a bronze eagle that had been attached to a Napoleonic flag. (The latter two items weren’t of particular historic or monetary value, adding to the strangeness of the crime.) We’re immediately drawn in by this bold heist and by the revelations from the early days, weeks and months of the investigation.
In later episodes, “This Is a Robbery” pivots from the original heist to a deep dive into the world of organized crime in the greater New England area in the 1990s and 2000s. We’re introduced to a myriad of crooks and con men and and killers, many of whom MIGHT have been involved in the Gardner Museum heist. One prime suspect turns up dead in the trunk of a car. The FBI has an informant infiltrate a group of wise guys and arrests them on another case, in the hopes one of them will spill the beans about the location of the loot from the museum, but nobody sings. A former sister-in-law of one suspect tells a story about hanging the Manet in his shabby apartment. We’re told many of the “people of interest” in the case hung out at a garage in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and many of them are long dead. Says one defense attorney: “Everybody who did the robbery is whacked or died of natural causes or unnatural causes.”
On the 23rd anniversary of the case, the FBI called a press conference and announced the thieves were dead — but they didn’t identify them by name. They also said, “We do not know where the art is currently located,” a formal way of saying, “We still don’t know what the hell happened to the art.” The reward for the return of the artwork has soared from $1 million to $5 million to $10 million, but though “This Is a Robbery” presents some solid and credible theories about who pulled off the heist, we’re still in the dark about the whereabouts of the art.
Here’s hoping the Rembrandt isn’t burned or cut to ribbons or lost to the winds. Maybe we’ll have a story down the road about how someone was at a garage sale and bought what they thought was a reproduction of “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” only to find out it’s the real thing.