During the early hours of March 18, 1990, something was amiss in Boston. As St. Patrick’s Day celebrations fizzled out and weary partygoers began the journey home, two men dressed as police officers approached the entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, under the pretense of a reported disturbance on museum grounds. Once let in by the night watchman, the men claimed to have a warrant for his arrest, quickly subduing him and the other guard. The thieves escaped with 13 paintings worth over $300 million in what has become known as the Gardner Heist.
The largest art theft in US history, the Gardner Heist is a textbook example of a heist — it took ingenuity, skill and the temptation of a massive reward. The concept of theft is ages old, yet the word heist itself is fairly modern, having originated in 1920s America and been derived from the word “hoist.” It works as a catchall term for robbery and burglary, usually referring to a large scale operation or any valuable object. Any place can be a target for a heist; although a plethora of films on the subject has given the impression that casinos and art galleries are the real bread winners.
In the past half-century, the concept of heists has taken off in film, and a slew of movies have emerged. These draw momentum from the fast-paced nature, high tech gadgetry, and adrenaline rush often associated with heists. However, many heists don’t fit this Hollywood-friendly mold, either out of simplicity or sheer bizarreness.
Even with heists, sometimes the simplest solution really is the best. Oddly enough, that’s the case with the largest casino heist to ever hit Las Vegas. In 1992, Bill Brennan, a cashier at the Stardust Casino, walked out on a lunch break with only a backpack. Inside the bag was $500,000. No gimmicks, no tricks. Brennan even walked past security guards on his way out. Currently, he is still at large, and the money has never been recovered.
Just Like Fiction
Although many cases the above example, there are a handful of cases that reach a level of complexity and precision usually reserved for thieves in film. One such case occurred in Antwerp, Belgium in what has become known as the largest diamond heist of all time.
In February 2003, Leonardo Notarbatolo led a team of Italian thieves to break into a vault in the Antwerp Diamond Center. Their task was nearly impossible — penetrate 10 layers of security including seismic, magnetic and heat sensors to enter the center’s vault. Planning the theft was an arduous two-year affair that involved gaining both the trust of vault employees and knowledge of the system, which was thought to be infallible at the time. Evidence left in the woods by a group member ultimately incriminated the team, leading to their subsequent arrest.
Home Sweet Home
Most notable heists have taken place in cities associated with wealth, but this is clearly not always the case. In fact, Rochester was the location of the fifth largest robbery in U.S history. On January 5, 1993, three thieves with ties to the Irish Republican Army — including a priest — subdued guards at a Brink’s armored car depot and made off with $7.4 million dollars. The heist was incredibly planned with nine months of surveillance, and inside help from security guard Thomas O’Connor. The honeymoon ended when the thieves were later apprehended in mid-1993, after seeking refuge both in Rochester and New York City.
The Great Guinness Heist
In November 2007, a thief stole a trailer containing nearly a quarter million dollars worth of beer from a Guinness factory in Ireland, consisting of kegs of Guinness, Budweiser and Carlsberg beers. The largest beer heist to ever occur at the factory, the thief merely hooked a truck to the trailer and drove away. The trailer was later discovered. It was empty.
In the late 1970s, two physics graduate students from the University of California at Santa Cruz attempted what just may be one of the weirdest casino heists of all time. Using modified shoes containing a simple computer, they managed to cheat the system, scoring massive payouts at roulette. Standing next to the roulette, one thief would use his shoes to disrupt the spin of the roulette wheel. Through a series of electrical signals, the other would receive information on how to bet.
However, for all the ingenuity, the plan had its flaws. There were a variety of glitches with the electronics, which led to the thieves receiving plenty of electric shocks and the occasional burning shoe before they were finally apprehended.
Bad Art Capers
Just as art itself can be anything and anywhere, art theft can occur even in the most unlikely places. Take for example the Museum of Bad Art located in Deadham, Mass. The museum prides itself as a museum offering “art too bad to ignore.” There have been two separate cases of theft from the museum. Notably, in 2004, Rebecca Harris’s “Self Portrait as a Bird” was stolen from the museum for a $10 ransom. However, the thief forgot to mention a drop-off location for the ransom, and eventually returned the painting along with $10. In order to deal with cases of theft, the museum has installed a fake security camera, jokingly asserting this will keep their collection more secure.
Many cases of heists go unsolved. Oftentimes, movies make us forget the reality of crime. We begin to identify with the human aspects of the actors in movies, which lead us to root for them and their mission to steal. In real life, aside from the Bad Art Capers, there are very few happy endings for the perpetrators and victims of criminal activity.
It’s been nearly twenty years since the Gardner Heist, and little helpful evidence has shown up. The statute of limitations to charge anyone with the crime has passed, and the criminals can no longer be prosecuted, even if they are found. Yet, instead of pushing for prosecution, the museum has been hoping to recover the paintings, offering a $5 million reward for information leading to their recovery. The aftermath is an ugly truth of heists that doesn’t often make the translation to film. Someday, the paintings may be discovered, but until that time, 13 frames within the museum lie empty.