People throw around phrases like “something straight out of a movie” with enough regularity that they can start to lose their meaning, but sometimes, every once in a while, something will happen in real life that plays out like an honest-to-goodness Hollywood script. One of the best examples here is the art theft that took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990, which is the subject of a new Netflix docuseries titled This Is a Robbery.
The short version goes something like this: On the night of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, two men dressed as police officers showed up at the museum and were let inside by guards, who were all promptly tied up and led to the basement while the thieves spent the next 81 minutes looting the gallery. All told, they made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in paintings and sculptures and, despite numerous leads and theories, were never caught, and the paintings were never recovered. It is widely regarded as the largest art heist in history, and certainly the largest that remains unsolved.
This is, obviously, fascinating, especially if you’re someone like me who spends multiple hours a week reading real and fictional stories about heists, and has seen The Thomas Crown Affair two or three dozen times. I’ve read articles about this Gardner heist, and I’ve listened to podcasts about it, and I ripped through the four episodes of this series in about 48 hours. It’s a blast to watch, just littered with weirdos and thieves and lawyers and investigators, all of whom have things to say and theories to spout, many of them in chowder-thick Boston accents. If you haven’t seen it yet, please, dive in at some point. You might end up as obsessed as I am.
After I watched the docuseries, its director, Colin Barnicle, was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat about it with me over the phone. We covered the robbery itself, and the process of getting people to open up about a traumatic event from three decades prior, and yes, at least one bonkers but sadly debunked theory of the crime. Our chat, slightly edited and condensed for clarity, is presented below.
Let’s start at the top just to set a baseline for everybody here. Can you give me a real quick summary, in your words, of the Gardner Heist, and why it was interesting to you as a documentary-length project?
The Gardner Heist happened on the holiest of holies in Boston, St. Patrick’s night into March 18th, 1990. Two thieves dressed as Boston Police entered the back door of the Gardner Museum, they subdued the guards, and they robbed what is at least a half a billion dollars worth of art. They robbed major works by Vermeer, three Rembrandts, Degas, a Manet, among a few other things. And nobody has ever seen them since, the art or the thieves, nobody’s ever been arrested, nobody’s ever been brought to court for this.
As you said, this crime happened 30 years ago, and yet, you seemed to be able to track down so many of the people who were involved. Was it hard to get these people rounded up and to get them to speak so candidly on camera about something like this?
It was very hard. A lot of people didn’t want to talk because, one, it was the time period in their life they didn’t want to go back over, and two, they were afraid of possible prosecution. And then a lot of times they didn’t want to say anything or misremember anything from 30 years ago that might hurt somebody or mislead somebody.
One person who did not seem to have any qualms about discussing it was Myles Connor, the career art thief and member of Mensa, who may or may not have been in prison at the time of the heist. His lawyer, the first time he met him, said he had a mountain lion on a leash, and we later learned he once had a trailer filled with swords. What was it like talking to this guy, because he was fascinating to me?
He’s an odd guy. Yeah. Odd doesn’t even really encompass the word, yeah. That mountain lion on the leash ended up in a Farrah Fawcett ad, actually, a car ad in the late seventies.
It’s hilarious. It’s like on a beach, there’s a car, and there’s Farrah Fawcett, and Myles Connor’s mountain lion. Yeah, he’s an extremely smart guy. He knows the law and he knows the statutes, and what he can and cannot talk about. You can talk to him about katana blades for three, four hours at a time, or about reptiles and snakes. He loves the study of, I think it’s called herpetology, the study of reptiles. He lived, literally, in a house with a horse for a while, he owned a pet crocodile, a pet mountain lion, and truly admires fine art. But he likes talking, and he likes talking about art and art robbery. And he played with Roy Orbison, and he played with The Beach Boys in the early ’60s when he had his band, so he doesn’t really have stage fright, which is always a good thing when you’re trying to get information.
I don’t ever remember seeing a criminal who may or may not have been involved with a crime who is so happy to be talking about it on camera.
It was difficult to try to hedge him down without getting too far off track. I think the first episode, when we first got it together, half of it ended up being Myles, and we were like, “It’s not a documentary about Myles.”
I think the most shocking thing that jumped out to me when I was watching it was that this museum has billions of dollars worth of art and it’s being guarded at night by this collection of hippy musicians, stoners, and goofballs.
I think partially what blew us away was that it’s actually not odd for students to be guards in these museums. What is odd is that they didn’t have any exterior alarms other than one button. And certainly, the museum had been cased before, the FBI had been there in 1981, told them that it was being cased.
There were plans to make the guard desk a little bit more secure. There had been another security assessment in 1988, which basically said, “You’re okay, but you have some problems here.” And the door itself, the mantrap door [the two-door system that was supposed to lock intruders between], there was a magnet lock problem on the inside door, which defeats the purpose of actually having a mantrap door. So they had some issues,
They had to fire their then director because they were losing money, they were not outward-reaching, they were not really protecting the art in any way. When you go over the budget and you don’t see anything for climate control in there whatsoever, I mean, forget about the guards.
The most sympathetic figure in the whole thing, for me at least, was the new director they brough in, Anne Hawley, who had just started and was starting to implement the climate control stuff, and was starting to modernize it, and then all of this happens. The footage that you guys have of the post-heist press conference is incredible to me, because you could just see it all on her face, just this look that says “I did not sign up for this.”
If you go to the Gardner now, it’s beautiful, and the art is protected, and it’s an atmosphere that really reaches out to the community. That’s because of her. But yeah, she got hired in July 1989, but she started working in the Fall of 1989, six months prior to the robbery. And she’s got all these plans, number one, climate control, because a theft is not really top-of-mind. It was brutal. It was a brutal period for her, especially in those first couple of years, because tips are coming into the museum, and she and the other trustee, Arnold Hiatt are really handling it themselves while also trying to kind of reinvigorate this decrepit museum. It sucked for her.
She did not look like she was having fun.
Even to this day she kind of trances out when she actually talks about that morning. The way she put it was, it’s like a family member had died. Something you were supposed to protect gets swiped from you, or taken from you. And it’s difficult for her to talk about, even today.
The series lays out the most straightforward theory of the crime, that these organized crime figures took the paintings as some sort of bartering scheme to get someone out of jail or get a sentence reduced either then or in the future, but what’s the most outlandish theory you uncovered during your research?
One of the funnier ones involved Frank Salemme, who was the de facto head of the Boston Mafia at that time. In March 1990, he’s actually out in L.A. more or less, trying to become the muscle behind movie producing. He’s trying to get the mafia into movies and they’re trying to produce this film called Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, where he plays a love-stricken vampire. And we heard that it was possible that the art was robbed to fund the movie. We checked into that, that is not true, as it turns out, but it was a funny one we heard.
I, suddenly, right now, want nothing in the world more than for that to have been true.
You go out to Hollywood, you get the stars in your eyes, and all of a sudden, you’re robbing Rembrandts to fund your movie.
A movie about a vampire who falls in love, too. Not even some prestigious Oscar movie.
Yeah, with George Hamilton.
There are lots of great interview subjects in this, just a lay-up line of characters and thick Boston accents. Two of my favorite people who popped up repeatedly were Marty Leppo, the lawyer, who seemed to represent every person even loosely involved in the heist and was very happy to talk about it all, and the sister-in-law of the one suspect who was…
Yes. Who was just, like, sitting at her kitchen table, fully relaxed, like she doesn’t even realize the camera’s there, telling you about how she didn’t like the frames, and she thought the art was…
We knew Donna had seen the art [at some point after the robbery]. We were pretty sure on that. I actually tried to trick her with a lineup of Manets that all look similar. Some of the producers actually had trouble picking up the Chez Tortoni, but Donna, this isn’t something that’s on the top of her mind, that she prepped for the interview. And she knew exactly what she saw. She pointed it out right away. Another one I really liked was the guard, Karen.
Yes. With the shoulder-length silver hair?
Yeah, she was just so hip and cool. And she had such a great memory for that morning. She had never been interviewed before and she was so good at it. She was so quirky and so detail-oriented with something that happened 31 years ago, because she’s an artist, so she’s worked in a visual medium. And she was talking about it and we were just like, oh, my God. We expected to interview her and be like, “Oh yeah, I don’t really remember 30 years ago.” But she dove right in. She was like, “Oh yeah, I got there at 7:43. It was 58 degrees and I thought it was a little humid. And I hit the button that you…” I really liked her. She was very endearing and she was so smart. She just remembered everything so clearly.
I’ll tell you what, in the documentary when she’s first introduced and she’s sitting cross-legged on her couch with her whole body up there on the cushions, and her face is just glowing, I can remember thinking in that moment, “This is going to be really good. This lady has stuff to say.”
She was great. Yeah, she’s a very quirky soul.
All right, last question, this is one you’re getting a million times, I’m sure. Scale of one to 10, with one being never in a million years and 10 being by the end of the summer — how likely do you think it is that these paintings will ever be recovered at this point?
I think it’s individual on each painting. I think if you were going to ask me about the big ones, I would say it’s like two, one or two. I would say for the physically smaller works like the Chez Tortoni, I would say those are more like probably eight or nine.
We’ve heard that these are just around New England, and people don’t know about them. A good for instance is, nobody had gotten a picture ever of Bobby Guarente, nobody knew what he looked like. And we got the photo through a family member, and that family member had no idea he was connected to this crime, and they lived together. The family members of some of these suspects might be sitting on something. They just think it’s a drawing or a nice thing that they put over the toilet or in their den. They just don’t know its provenance, and that happens a lot. I think it will happen for the smaller works eventually. The bigger works, I don’t know. I’m trying to keep hope, but nothing we’ve heard has been very, very helpful.
‘This Is A Robbery’ is currently streaming via Netflix.