This Is A Theft: Netflix Series Examines World’s Biggest Art Heist | Documentary


isn 81 minutes in the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves posing as Boston cops fled with $ 500 million of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It was the most expensive art theft in history, one of the art world’s most enduring unsolved mysteries made all the more baffling by its three decades of publicity. In the years that followed, tracks for the missing works of masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet remained deadlocked or disappeared in a quicksand of hearsay, suspects died and detectives took their toll. retreat, weak leads ranging from the sensational (IRA arms deals) to more mundane (local gangsters) has turned icy. Despite a $ 5 million reward offer, none of the works were recovered and no arrests were ever made.

Almost exactly 30 years later, the Boston lore staple gets the Netflix docuseries treatment with This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, a four-part series, directed by Colin Barnicle and named after the line. which was allegedly delivered by one of the thieves to guard Richard Abath on the night of the heist. The project, which has been in preparation for more than five years, takes a comprehensive look at a business that has barely thawed in 30 years; he views crime scene photos and evidence logs, interviews key journalists and legal figures, and studies several theories for a deep dive that like other media investigations such as the Boston Globe podcast and WBUR 2018 Last Seen, comes to plausibility instead of certainty.

Thousands upon thousands of police documents, multiple repeated and rejected FBI investigations and theories – wading through Gardner’s sprawl was “almost like archeology, trying to find the edges of something,” Barnicle said at the Guardian. Such digging was years in the making; Barnicle and his brother Nick, originally from the Boston area long fascinated by the case, began investigating in 2014 and shooting in 2015, a process that involved years combing the local investigative network and delving into burrows of theories.

The series briefly discusses the museum’s distant relationship with the community at the time of the theft. Inward-facing and apathetic about updating security, the Gardner Museum – a Venetian-style palace meticulously erected by the eponymous and singular art collector in 1899 – was something of a sitting duck for a art heist in 1990 (Longtime director Anne Hawley, who served until 2016 and is one of the main interviewees on the series, only had six months after her tenure began when she was faced with the double devastation of the theft and explaining this vulnerability to the press.)

But the bulk of the first two chapters ground the investigation into the inner workings of theft itself – a story much more understandable than the more diffuse theories of where the art actually ended in the years that followed. “We wanted to start with a blank slate, without assuming anything, and go from there and see where the evidence takes us,” Barnicle said.

The series opens with two eyewitnesses, then high school students leaving a party, who claimed to have seen two men dressed as Boston cops in a sedan on the night of the robbery (a scene recreated by actors from the Berkshire Theater Group). From there, alarm recordings retrace the steps of the thieves as they tore up a strange selection of works from their frames: three Rembrandts, including The Tempest on the Sea of ​​Galilee, the only seascape by the Dutch master; The Concert, one of 36 paintings by Vermeer; several sketches by Degas; and works by Flinck and Manet. The thieves also perplexedly bypassed several more valuable works, but stole a relatively cheaper Chinese vase and a bronze eagle atop a Napoleonic flag.

Abath, the guard on duty that night, was found by police the next morning in the tunnels under the Palace of the Arts, bound and blindfolded with duct tape; Suspicions of internal work immediately turned to the 23-year-old dropping out of music school in a basement rock band, who admitted to showing up frequently for work stoned. Abath declined to be interviewed for the series, but his perspective is represented in audio recordings of an interview years earlier with Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, who wrote the 2015 book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist.

This Is a Robbery, like the book, lands in detail where the FBI arrived a few years earlier: that the works were stolen by two associates of local gangster Carmello Merlino. According to this theory, the thieves were George Reissfelder, 51, and Leonard DiMuzio, 49, who frequented a mafia-linked body shop in Dorchester and both died in 1991, respectively of a cocaine overdose and a shooting. Merlino was arrested in an FBI shot for attempted theft from an armored vehicle depot in 1999, and died in prison in 2005. The FBI believes the work ended up in the possession of convicted bank robber Robert Guarente. with East Coast mafia ties who died in 2004. The only member of the mob likely to know of the theft, David Turner, was arrested along with Merlino in 1999 and released prematurely from prison in 2019 at age 52; he refused to participate in the series, according to Barnicle.

Photography: courtesy of Netflix

While the show and the FBI can’t concretely say what happened to the artwork, Barnicle has his own theories. “I don’t think the people who stole the art are exactly the same as the people who got the art in the months that followed,” he explained. They were thieves for hire, which “wasn’t strange – it had often happened with art thefts all over the greater Boston area.” He believes the thieves gave at least some of the stolen art to “the person who basically slipped the bill, allegedly Guarente and Bobby Donati,” another Mafia associate who likely orchestrated the heist and is death by homicide in 1991. “I think they had the motive, I think they had the means, they had done things like this before,” Barnicle said.

As for Turner, “I absolutely believe he knows about the theft,” Barnicle said, although he doubts Turner would know where the art is after more than 20 years in prison.

The key to finding art may still lie with the living, however; Barnicle said the series was explicitly aimed at raising awareness, especially of lesser-known works that might be in the possession of someone unaware of their value – Rembrandt’s self-portrait and Degas sketches, for example, could pass to a non-eye. warned as unpretentious. family heirlooms. “I think it’s possible that some little pieces are still there somewhere on someone’s wall – they just don’t know they have them because they weren’t as prevalent as the Vermeer and the Rembrandts, ”Barnicle said.

As for the major works, he added, “you will face serious crime there”. The FBI said it had determined that the works traversed through organized crime networks in Connecticut and Philadelphia were the last suspected sighting of Rembrandt’s seascape in 2003. The trail has been cold ever since.

While less likely for larger works likely lost in storage or in the hands of someone who knows their importance, “I hope the series ends up with one of the works back in their frames,” he said. Barnicle said. Until then, the gilded frames hang empty in the Gardner Museum, monuments to be restored still unfinished.


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