March 18: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Robbery

IsabellaBoston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was established in 1903 by its eponymous founder as a public place in which she could display her collection of European, Asian and American art. The museum is designed to resemble a 15th-century Venetian palace with a courtyard, and Gardner carefully arranged the collection’s 2,500 objects around the complex in a manner that was not only aesthetically pleasing but also allowed items from different cultures and eras to engage in conversation. Early in the morning on March 18, 1990, while the city was still distracted by St. Patrick’s Day, two thieves broke into the museum and pulled off one of the biggest art thefts in history.

At 1:24 in the morning, two men disguised as police officers arrived at an entrance of the museum and told the guard at the front desk “Police! Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” The guard let them in without question, and was told to summon the other guard who was on duty at the time. One of the robbers told the guard “You look familiar…I think we have a default warrant out for you.” and asked him to step away from the desk, away from the alarm that would alert the real Boston PD. He was handcuffed and the other guard was soon shackled as well. The second guard asked what he had done at which point the robbers revealed “You’re not being arrested,…this is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.”

The two guards were placed bound and gagged in the museum’s basement and the robbers went to work. First, they attempted to steal a 1692 Rembrandt self portrait, but they found it too heavy and left it on the floor. They then went about the museum, stealing thirteen items, seemingly at random. Amongst the items stolen were Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, both of which were cut out of their frames, a small postage stamp etching by Rembrandt,  five drawings by Degas, a Chinese vase and a finial in the shape of a Napoleonic eagle. Art scholars and FBI investigators found that last item particularly perplexing as in order to get to the finial, the thieves had to pass by much more valuable works including two Raphaels and a Botticelli. The theft lasted 81 minutes; at 8:15 the two guards would be discovered when the morning shift came in to relieve them. As Gardner’s will stipulated that the way the museum’s collection was presented was not to be altered, empty frames still hang where the stolen works of art were once displayed. The Gardner museum still offers a 5-million dollar reward for any information that leads to the recovery of the stolen pieces.

Amusingly, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offers free admission to anyone with the name Isabella. So, it’s only fitting that we mix an  Isabella. This cocktail starts as a Martini, but adds a drop each of grenadine and orange juice to give it a subtle flavor and a pale rose color.


  • 2 ounce Gin
  • 1 ounce Dry Vermouth
  • 1 dash grenadine
  • 1 dash orange juice

Stir all ingredients together in a mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: How the last days of World War II could have gotten worse.


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