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The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft
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One museum, two thieves, and the Boston underworld—the story behind the lost Gardner masterpieces and the art detective who swore to get them back

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads, hundreds of interviews, and a $5-million reward, not a single painting has been recovered. Worth a total of $500 million, the missing masterpieces have become the Holy Grail of the art world and one of the nation's most extraordinary unsolved mysteries.

Art detective Harold Smith worked on the theft for years, and after his death, reporter Ulrich Boser inherited his case files. Traveling deep into the art underworld, Boser explores Smith's unfinished leads and comes across a remarkable cast of characters, including the brilliant rock 'n' roll art thief; the golden-boy gangster who professes his innocence in rhyming verse; the deadly mobster James "Whitey" Bulger; and the Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, who stipulated in her will that nothing should ever be changed in her museum, a provision followed so closely that the empty frames of the stolen works still hang on the walls. Boser eventually cracks one of the biggest mysteries of the case and uncovers the identities of the men who robbed the museum nearly two decades ago. A tale of art and greed, of obsession and loss, The Gardner Heist is as compelling as the stolen masterpieces themselves.

Customer Reviews:

  • "True"?
    In a creative writing course, this may merit a C+ at a mediocre college, but as far as distinguishing fact from fevered imagination, this book is overrated at 1 star. The author blends his romantic conjecture with a few factoids as a snake oil salesman mixed his "secret ingredients", and with the same results - one is lucky if one comes out of the experience with no harm done. The one star is for the pretty cover....more info
  • Pondering again, THE GARDNER HEIST.
    DEAR ULRICH,

    READ THE GARDNER HEIST WITH INTEREST THIS PAST MONTH. I WAS AN ART /ART HISTORY MAJOR AT OSU AND ENJOY MYSTERIES. HAVE READ AND WANT TO SHARE SOME OF MY THOUGHTS WITH YOU. SMILE.

    THERE IS A CODE EVEN AMONG THIEVES (MOB INCLUDED) BOSTON , TO NEW ENGLAND FOLKS, IS THE ONLY LOCAL ON EARTH! BUT HEY, ART IS GLOBAL. THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM WAS STILL "IN THEIR TERRITORY" SO NO TO A MOB CONNECTION I FEEL.

    WHY TAKE 2 OBJECTS OF LITTLE INSUFFICIENT (POSSIBLY EVEN MISSING BEFORE)? - TO SHOW THAT EVERYDAY OBJECTS CAN AND ARE ART! LET'S CALL A PAINTING WHAT IT REALLY IS-PAINT! IN ADDITION THE SPIRIT (AND OR SOME WOULD SAY PART OF THE ARTIST'S SOUL) ART CAPTURES LIFE IN MANY STYLES AND FORMS. IT IS THE NEED TO OWN THAT IS REFLECTED IN THE PRICE TAG. *THE KEY TO ME, AS AN ARTIST, IS ONE OF A KING-"THE CREATIVE PROCESS".

    THE THIEF, IF A GANG MEMBER, WOULD HAVE CHECKED OUT BEFORE HAND AND PLANNED FOR A FUTURE OPPORTUNE TIME (HARD TO SEE A TRUE BOSTON NATIVE GIVE UP DRINKING ON ST. PAT'S DAY AND INTO THE EVENING JUST TO "ROB A GALLERY").

    ANOTHER ANGLE, A DISSATISFIED ART STUDENT-REJECTED SOMEWHERE? SO TOO, A LOCAL FRATERNITY HAZING?

    AN ORIGINAL OWNER OF ONE OR SOME OF THE WORKS OF ART BEFORE THEIR APPEARANCE IN THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM ? MONEY MAY HAVE COME AVAILABLE-SOLD TO ISABELLA WITHOUT ENOUGH KNOWLEDGE...THEIR THOUGHTS-"WE SHOULD HAVE THOSE BACK". WHERE DID THE WORKS ORIGINATE? SELL, RESELL...WHO EVER BID FOR AND LOST THE BID OF THE STOLEN WORKS??? IF THEY COULD NOT HAVE POSSIBLY THEIR MOTIVE "TO SEARCH AND DESTROY" WAS JUST THAT!

    *LATER DATE...WE ( USA ) 1ST WENT INTO IRAQ AND DESTROYED THEIR NATIONAL ART TREASURERS. THE UN HAD ASKED THAT USA NOT TO BUT, WE BOMBED/SEARCHED/DESTROYED. HOW SAD FOR HISTORY. YOU MENTION A FEW WORKS OF ART, YET MANY ARE STOLEN AS YOU SAY EACH YEAR AROUND THE GLOBE AND EVEN MORE IN WAR.

    THE ONE EARLIER GUARD WHO HAD AN OBSESSION WITH ISABELLA AND LOVE OF THE MUSEUM WAS DISMISSED TOO QUICK. IF HE LOVED THE PIECES THEN SURELY OVER TIME THAT FOCUSED/MISGUIDED LOVE GREW. IF ONLY A FEW PIECES TO REMEMBER.

    WHY, THE DUTCH ROOM? 3RD. FLOOR WITH A TIME ELEMENT-OR WAS THERE IF A BEEPER. (3RD. PARTY POLICE AND/OR POLICE SCANNER TO HEADQUARTERS. * BUT THEN HOW ABSURD-ST. PAT'S FESTIVITIES-ALL WOULD KNOW "THEY WERE BUSY".

    WAS THE ARCHITECTURAL AGENCY FOR THE GARDNER STILL IN EXISTENCE? BLUE PRINTS OWNED BY THE GARDNER ? THE SAME AT THE AGENCY? YOU MENTIONED THE ORIGINAL STEPS WERE CHANGED...OTHER MODIFICATIONS? DID YOU CHECK OUT THE COPY OF THE BUILDING IN ITALY AND SEE IF THEY KNEW OF HIDDEN AREAS IN THEIR STRUCTURE? I FELT ALL ALONG THAT THE WORKS STOLEN COULD HAVE BEEN STASHED IN THE BUILDING ITSELF.

    WHY DID YOU NOT BELIEVE THAT THE TV STUDIO / SHOW (MONK) COULD NOT HAVE HAD THE ONE OR MORE ORIGINAL PIECES FROM THE HEIST? WHAT BETTER WAY TO KEEP AN ORIGINAL SAFE - IN CLEAR SIGHT! ALL WOULD ASSUME A COPY-HEY, YOU DID TOO.

    I STILL GO BACK TO THE PAST DIRECTOR AND THE PAINTINGS/OBJECTS NOT INSURED. THE ORIGINALS COULD HAVE BEEN SWITCHED YEARS EARLIER. *SO TOO, POSSIBLY, THEY WERE FAKES, FROM THE START. THERE WILL BE NO NEED FOR THE WORKS TO EVER RESURFACE---THE ONE'S TAKEN WERE FAKES!

    THE FBI / POLICE HAD THE MOBS ON THE RUN-HITS OUT WITH GUNS AND/OR DRUGS...TOO MUCH IN THE BOOK ABOUT THIS ANGLE. I GUESS WHAT YOU NEEDED TO SAY "WHAT LOW LIFE" WOULD TAKE SOMETHING FROM "THE FENWAY GALLERY"? NEW YORK - ST. LOUIS THE BASEBALL CIRCUIT. YOU SKIPPED OVER "THE FENWAY CONNECTION" AND $$$ INVOLVED IN BASEBALL AND ART.

    REMBRANDT ON THE SHIP WITH JESUS AND THE DISCIPLES. YES, SURE LIKE HOLLAND DOESN'T LIKE ART! WHY SUCH A STONG PULL TO IRELAND ?

    ANOTHER ANGLE - HAROLD SMITH LIKE WHY WAS HIS HOUSE SOLD SO QUICKLY AND HIS PAPERS MISSING? DESTROYED? HIS NAME KEPT ALIVE WITH YOUR WRITING...SO WE ALL WANT TO BE REMEMBERED...AND HIS NAME SURFACES WITH THE GARDNER HEIST.

    ODD WHEN YOU SAY THE FELLOW IN IRELAND WITH THE GREEN EYES CAN NOT BE YOUR MAN (HE MIGHT HAVE HAD CONTACTS MADE GREEN FOR HIM TO COVER HIS BABY BLUE EYES).

    LAST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN...WERE THE ROBBERS NOT REALLY TRUE TO LIFE COPS? THEY HAD THE ACCESS AND YES COULD HAVE ALSO STUDIES MUG SHOTS AND MADE DISGUISES TO FIT.

    THANKS, FOR YOUR CREATIVE WRITING ULRICH, SO MANY LEADS AND EXTENSIVE RESEARCH-CAUSED ME TO QUESTION EVERYTHING! ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE-IT'S ABOUT THE SOUL...WHEN ONE GIVES THEIR WHOLE LIFE ALLOWS FOR MANY OPPORTUNITIES AND CHANGE. FOR YOU I WISH A MARVELOUS LIFE JOURNEY IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND PAINT!

    HUGS, READER, REBEKAH ANN (VOLL) KEENEY / "BECKY KEENEY"
    ...more info
  • Total Set UP
    This novel was detailed with a lot of therory and lies. The author main suspect was set up by the FBI and was the only interesting part of the novel, He calls Turner a murderer who killed 6 people which was good reading but he,s never been convicted of anything and offers no evidence. If he had the paintings he would have gave them up instead of sitting in jail until he 60 years old. Any one from Boston knows a crime like that would have Whitey Bulger name on it not a 22 year kid??
    ...more info
  • Fascinating
    I like mysteries and this one is real, which made it very compelling. It goes into detail about the theft of paintings from the Garner Museum and how the author of the book became a sleauth in hunting down the paintings.

    To this day the paintings are still missing, almost 20 years after the theft, so the book is not one where there is any clear answers as to where the paintings may be or who took them, but he lays out some good arguments as to who probably has them.

    Perhaps one day the paitnings may show up again and this msytery is answered....more info
  • The Gardner Heist
    As an art history major and a lover of Miss Marple mysteries, this book kept me fascinated and intrigued from the first to the last page. Regrettably, unlike Miss Marple the end is yet to come. It is a very interesting view of the art theft and sleuthing world. ...more info
  • A heist now worth $500 million "solved" but still unsolved
    It's quite arguable, given the inflation in art prices since 1990, that the Gardner heist's haul (as intact artworks, not sliced out of their frames) would be worth as much as $500 million today, if not more. Vermeer's "The Concert" and Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" might well sell for a total of $500 million by themselves. And, that doesn't count the other masterworks stolen from Boston's private Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

    Ulrich Boser breaks the reader into the story through the eyes and ears of art detective Harold Smith. Unfortunately, Smith died not too long after Boser met him.

    But, Boser becomes about as consumed by cracking the case as Smith was, though he doesn't bring the level of professional expertise and background to the case.

    That said, he does introduce people to the lax security at art museums, and the reason why -- the high overhead for high-level security. (The Stewart's security now is about one-third its annual budget.)

    He ties in Boston mob capo Whitey Bulger, as well as the IRA, as having possible links to the case, at least background links, though nothing can be proven. He also shows how art becomes a secondary currency, even a collateralized one, in the underworld, a fair part of why art heists only have about a 5 percent recovery rate.

    Boser eventually does a good "real-world" job of hanging the collar on two known Boston criminals. (Sorry, no names disclosed!) Of course, the statute of limitations has expired, one of the pair is dead anyway (possibly at the hands of his purported crime partner) and the one living alleged thief isn't talking at all.

    Anyway, it's definitely a good read, and a good intro to the shadows of the art theft underworld. It also shows how a journalist can get infatuated with a big story, or about anybody can get infatuated with fine art....more info
  • Are you kidding me?
    I should have known better than to read this book. I did some minimal research on the topic prior to reading the book and I fault no one other than myself for making the mistake of reading this book anyway. False leads, conjecture and minimal insight into the heist is what the book is composed of.

    The author finally giving up to spend time with his family, while admirable on a personal level, is an admission that his investigation and ultimately this book led nowhere and gave absolutely no additional insight compared to what one could get from a 3 minute search on Google.

    The end of the book left me saying "that's IT"

    This was not exciting, not informative and most of all a waste of my time and by his own admission and obsession by the author.

    Don't bother. ...more info
  • COST TO MUCH!!!
    WHY DOES THIS BOOK COST MORE THAT $9.99? I WOULD BUY THIS IF IT WERE PRICED BETTER....more info
  • Lost Art-Cultural Crime
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Gardner Heist because it was gripping and informative. I found the topic fascinating as I knew very little about the world of art theft.I thought Mr. Boser's portrayal of Harold Smith 's passion for this case while enduring his personal suffering was extremely sensitive. Mr. Boser's dedication to continue Mr. Smith's search for the paintings and for the thieves showed the high regard he had for him.The book told a compelling story; but more importantly,it brought the reader to the realization that the stolen paintings were not only a loss to the museum, but a loss to future generations and to the artistic and cultural world. Bravo, Mr. Boser!...more info
  • Nothing new
    The author travels the world interviewing con men and bulls--tters and doesn't move the mystery one micron forward. Read The Irish Game or The Rescue Artist for an excellent story about art theft....more info
  • A well-written story...
    Another reviewer of this book gave it four stars because he thought the ending was inconclusive - the paintings stolen in 1990 have never been found. Well, that is the fact, and if this book could only end with the recovery, then it wouldn't/couldn't have been written.

    Boser writes a very readable tale of art, both purchased and stolen, and the personalities who came together - over a period of about 150 years - to make the Gardner heist the world's largest theft. He writes about the paintings and their provenance and how Isabella Stewart Gardner - an outsized personality - came to collect her art and put together her highly idiosyncratic museum. He writes about the search - ongoing for the past 20 years - to recover the masterpieces and the men and women, who were both victims and perpetrators of the crime.

    I enjoyed the book.
    ...more info
  • Where, oh, where are those masterpieces?
    Ulrich Boser's The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft combines several fascinating stories. It re-tells, virtually minute by minute, what is known of how this infamous 1990 art theft was staged. It relates a brief history of the museum's namesake, founder and benefactor, Isabella Gardner. It discusses the paintings that were ripped from the walls and their frames, including Vermeer's The Concert, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Manet's Chez Tortoni (the photo section provides pictures of them). It examines the security in the museum then and now. It introduces us, through interviews with Boser, to Harold Smith, the most successful art detective of his day. It kicks around the leads and theories that the FBI, police, and private investigators have followed up in the years since the heist. It looks into the lives of some of the men who've been suspected of and investigated for the actual robbery and others who might have the paintings now. The suspects include several vicious members of the underworld, one of whom is currently serving forty years in prison for an unrelated crime, and another who has blotted the FBI's Most Wanted list for years.

    The author explains how, after Smith's death (due to illness, not foul play), he, Boser, got caught up in trying to solve the mystery of the paintings and how they might be recovered. Smith had been devoting huge amounts of time to the case; his was a mission bordering on obsession. And he wasn't alone in the hunt. A five million dollar reward lured some, but for others the love of art kept them searching. Boser also caught the Gardner fever, even traveling to another country to scan little seaside villages, hoping to catch sight of the mob boss who might be living there incognito -- perhaps even with the paintings in his home. Eventually Boser realized this quest could get him killed. But before he stopped hunting down every lead, he'd gathered enough evidence to convincingly identify the probable thieves, and he presents it all in The Gardner Heist with journalistic factualism married to an accessible, conversational style.

    The story of these missing masterpieces, quite possibly moldering away and perhaps even abandoned somewhere, is sad. But even though Boser's book can't have a storybook, feel-good, ending, anyone interested in the world of art (and crime) shouldn't miss The Gardner Heist.
    ...more info