13 Stolen Works of Art, Reimagined
Empty frames left behind after the theft on March 18 1990, left hanging today in the hope of their return.
The Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum / CC: Sebastian Grace
Created in partnership with Nora Holland
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is Boston’s most fascinating and infamous museum. In the early hours of March 18, 1990, over $500 million worth of artistic pieces were stolen in just 81 minutes. Sketches pocketed, paintings cut from their frames.
“13 Stolen Works of Art, Reimagined” is a multimedia story on a topic of local interest that provides a historical and cultural analysis of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist on the 33rd anniversary, bringing awareness to the stolen art and providing an opportunity for the pieces to be revitalized by modern artists with a fresh perspective.
The inside courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum / CC: Sebastian Grace
We interviewed Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe columnist and organized crime expert, who’s knowledge of the characters and inner workings of Boston’s criminal underworld contributed much to the Globe’s coverage of the heist and subsequent investigation. We also spoke to Aslan Ruby Studios and Ovie Faruq, two of the 13 artists that took part in the Boston Globe’s reimagining project.
Faruq is a London-based artist that specializes in NFTs and animated pieces. After studying finance and working at a bank for 10 years, Faruq shifted his career from trader to crypto artist. Since his transition into art, Faruq has become big in the NFT industry, with his art finding the likes of Snoop Dogg and being featured in numerous business publications including Bloomberg and Fortune.com. His art mimics the bright neon of city lights at night, with skull-faced characters to represent his previous experience of moving through life as a “corporate slave.”
Aslan Ruby Studios are a husband and wife team based in Alice Springs, Australia. Aslan Ruby Studio was born out of the NFT boom of 2021. In our conversation, Sarana described where she finds inspiration for her work and her love for color and her earliest impressions of the Gardner Museum heist as an “Ocean’s 11” film.
The Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum heist remains one of the largest ever thefts in the art world , and one of its most intriguing mysteries.
According to the museum, the story goes something like this: a vehicle pulled up to the side entrance of the museum while the city of Boston celebrated St Patrick’s Day. Two men dressed in police uniforms exited the vehicle, asking to be let into the museum on the false pretence that there was a reported disturbance. Once they were let into the museum, the two men tied up and duct taped the security guards and proceeded with the heist. The thieves took 13 pieces, including multiple Rembrandt paintings, Vermeer’s "The Concert," Flinck’s "Landscape with an Obelisk," a Chinese bronze Gu (beaker), five Degas works and a Manet. They made two trips taking the artwork to the car, and left with the guards still bound.
The theft continues to leave an immense impression on the art world, even 33 years later. The heist remains unsolved to this day, with a $10 million reward for information leading directly to the return of any of the pieces and an additional $100,000 for the return of the missing Napoleonic eagle finial. Many of the details about what happened that fateful night remain hidden and it raised numerous questions concerning museum security and art safety that reverberate around the world.
A March 2023 article from The Tufts Daily points out that the heist focuses attention on the paradox between the importance of keeping artwork safe while maintaining a welcoming and intimate environment for visitors to immerse themselves. Getting up close and personal to works greatly enhances a museum experience, but the approachable atmosphere can have important implications on art security. Although art theft remains a prevalent concern today, heightened security at the Gardner museum since the 1990 heist that fateful night has helped protect any additional works from being stolen, and the tragedy repeating itself.
While the stolen paintings are still absent from the museum, evidence has been discovered throughout the years that gives clues to potential suspects of the crime. It was reported by Shelley Murphy of the Boston Globe in 2021 that the heist was very likely committed by members of organized crime circles in Philadelphia, and speculated in a March 2022 Smithsonian article that the 1991 murder of career criminal Jimmy Marks may have been linked with the missing 13 pieces. According to museum chief of security Anthony Amore, it was hinted by a tipster that authorities should take another look at Marks’ murder because he was heard bragging about owning two of the stolen pieces and that he had hidden some others.
The mystery remains, despite a Netflix television documentary, “This is a Robbery,” and a hit Boston Globe and WBUR podcast series, “Last Seen.” A recent fresh tip has sparked interest in the case once more, and projects such as “13 Works of Art, Reimagined” are keeping its spirit alive. Although the trail has gone temporarily cold, one can only hope that the 13 artworks are still out there in the world.
Interview with Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe Columnist
Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen remembers, “From the very get go, we really did think it was an inside job.” “But the question was, who would do something like this? Organized crime always gets mentioned. And I remember very early on, there were suggestions that maybe the IRA was involved, because they had done this in Europe,” he added.
Given his long standing connection with organized crime and the IRA as a reporter who has covered them for 25 years, Cullen was the point person for sniffing out rumors in the underworld. He shut down thoughts of an IRA-organized heist pretty early on. “The idea that the IRA, which was desperately trying to get the American government involved to help create a peace process, or at least to act as sort of an honest broker between the British government and the Irish government, the idea that they would get involved in something like this, from the very beginning, I thought it was ludicrous. I just thought it was nuts,” Cullen explained.
The problem, though, was narrowing down the list of suspects. Cullen said, “It always struck me from the very beginning that it would have been organized crime. But that means a lot of different things. Whoever did it would have had to know a lot about the art world, and a lot about just being a thief. There were many potential suspects. That's what I remember when it broke, there was no general idea that these guys did it.”
Amid the confusion, one thing was clear: “It just struck us, not just me, but other people that were working on at the time, that this couldn't happen without the Wise Guys knowing about it,” Cullen said. But it had been a rough few years for Boston’s mafia, with a series of indictments and prison sentences handed down throughout the 1980’s in the build up to the robbery.
“The mafia had taken an awful lot of hits, up till four or five years prior. There were a couple of different groups that were vying for control of the mafia in Boston. And then you had the Winter Hill gang from Somerville, which was the biggest non mafia organized crime group. You would think they would have known something about it. But no, they were in disarray, too,” Cullen detailed.
13 items were stolen in total, including a number of the museum’s most prized possessions, and Cullen is pretty certain this reveals a level of expertise and pre-meditation. “You would assume that when you go into something like that, you can't take everything. So what do you take? I mean, clearly, they had an idea, this wasn't a smash and grab. These are people who knew what they were doing, knew what they were looking for, who probably had a favorite list of what they could get,” he explained.
The criminals knew they didn’t have all night, yet 81 minutes seems like a long amount of time. “It does,” Cullen admitted, but “this is not something where you can just grab these paintings, they would know that these things will be extremely delicate, that if you started just roughhousing them and just grabbing as much as you can get, you're going to damage the painting itself. So 81 minutes is a long time. But when I talked to people that know the art world, they said, you know, that isn't an extraordinary amount of time to get done what they needed to get done, and that they probably left things that they wanted,” he said.
Painting a picture of the investigation into this case, Cullen explained its unique and enchanting appeal: “The thing about this case is that all throughout the years, you couldn't rule anything out. There were just so many dead ends, and there was nothing obvious. There was always this belief that something would turn up. People that buy and traffic stolen art, they're not telling you they put it up in their dining room. These worlds collided between art theft, people that really know the art world, and then the criminals that would pull it off. That's why there were were so many people who fit the profile of a potential suspect at the time.”
Cullen detailed that in Boston in the late 80’s and early 90’s, a lot of the organized crime structures were up in the air, particularly because the FBI had been able to prosecute successive waves of Mafia leadership. He spoke about the character of the wise guys, and how their actions complicated the search:
“Remember all these guys, they all f****** lie and exaggerate their involvement in s*** like this. That's one of the most confusing things. People who are involved in the criminal world will go around claiming they did it because it would bolster their reputation. So when you look at the roster of how many people basically claimed they did it, it doesn't add up! We ask ‘Why? You'd be crazy to implicate yourself in a crime you didn't do.’ But that's how these guys operate. That's how they roll. They all will claim responsibility for something that you and I as non criminals would say, well, that's f****** stupid. Why would you do that? Just to improve their reputation in the criminal world,” he said
On the possibility of it being someone acting freelance, a random crime, Cullen said, “Sure. No one knew who the f*** was in charge back then. They kept locking up the mafia guys, it was very unclear who was in charge. There was a lot of paranoia in that world. The FBI always had informants on these guys, always. If you look at the history, they went after three successive tiers of mafia people in Boston. And so by the time Gardner rolls around the last thing you want is people to think that you're the next mafia guy, because the feds are gonna take you out.”
The most pressing question today, though, is whether these paintings will ever be found, or whether they have been destroyed. “I don't know why anybody would destroy them, at this point. There's always a market for stolen art. I think it's possible that they were stored somewhere and someone dies and they forget where they hid it. Look at the string of deaths of a lot of these people that were implicated in this. Everybody kept getting whacked. So many bodies. It could be as simple as that. It could be that somebody was holding it and he died,” Cullen suggested.
Boston Globe Reimagined Project
Boston Globe Media commissioned 13 artists to create digital reinterpretations of the stolen works. With a twist of modern technology on ancient masterpieces, some are close representations, others vivid flashes of futuristic content, deep colors or personal interpretations. Check out how their impressions compare to the originals here.
Award-winning graphic designer and illustrator Varvara Alay’s version of Degas’ “Cortège Sur Une Route Aux De Florence.”
Interview with Aslan Ruby Studio
Sarana, half of the team at Aslan Ruby Studio, has been working as an artist for 11 years, and has had “kind of a meandering journey.”
“So I started out just with drawing, I hated using any kind of color. I just did a lot of really intricate pencil drawings, maybe that was like the emo phase of my art career,” she said. After becoming “disillusioned with the fine art world, and the gatekeeping that can often happen with galleries, curators, or the middlemen that you need and all the different cuts that people get,” Sarana transcended to digital art, full of vibrancy and color.
Her reimagining of Rembrandt’s “A Lady And Gentleman In Black” stems from her affinity for equal representation of Australia’s indigenous community. From a Maori family herself, Sarana wanted to ensure people of color featured in the adaptation.
Much of Aslan Ruby Studio’s work is inspired by the everyday. “As far as things that inspire me, I think the main thread for my work is stories, you know, this idea of collective experience, especially things that are overlooked. So for a time I was quite interested in the mother's experience, because that's what I was experiencing in my life. The little things like a toddler screaming for two hours while you're trying to get them to sleep, and you're just in a small prison while they scream and you're thinking of the red wine that you've got on the bench,” Sarana said.
The Boston Globe approached Sarana for this project because of her work in the NFT industry. “It was a great thing to be asked to do. I mean, to reimagine a Rembrandt. The whole heist itself was kind of this weird ghost of a story that I remember from when I was younger, and wasn't quite sure whether it was like an Ocean's 11 movie that I watched, or whether it was true. I find it really fascinating and loved the artwork that they asked me to recreate as well,” she explained.
Sarana connected with Rembrandt’s masterpiece immediately because of its history and intricacies: “Looking deeper into that painting, there were all these mysterious clues within there. Did you know that there was originally a young child in that painting? It was a family portrait, but then the child got painted over, which probably suggests that the child died. But there's also an empty chair that's kind of left there. So it suddenly changed from me looking at it as quite a serious austere portrait of a couple to a feeling of mourning, a grief portrait of the space that their child used to be and how they were moving through that.”
This feeling of the isolation of grief while the world carries on inspired Sarana in her own impression. A couple, silent and still in their grief, surrounded by an explosion of color, signifying the action and relentless pace of the world hurtling on beside them.
Rembrandt’s “A Lady And Gentleman In Black” alongside Aslan Ruby Studio’s reimagined piece.
When asked whether she thought Rembrandt would like the reimagining, Sarana said, “If you showed it to Rembrandt in his time, I think his brain would probably melt. But if Rembrandt perhaps had some kind of knowledge of how artwork has progressed past the time that he died, then maybe he’d have an appreciation. I don't know necessarily that it would strike his moody style that he usually has, but who knows? Maybe he'd love it.”
Sarana had heard about the heist before but only in fleeting childhood memories. The more familiar she has become with the details of the case, the more it shocks her. “How could two people just go in and cut paintings from their frames and just completely get away with it? And still they haven't found any of those paintings. It's one of those real mysteries.”
But a small part of her is pleased, with subversion a vital part of the artistic spirit. “It's one of those funny things where, yes, it's a massive shame to have those paintings gone. But also the story that comes out of that, the infamy, it's definitely become its own driving force. It's that mystery that if they did solve it, I don't know, would it be mildly disappointing?”
Listen to our conversation in full here:
Interview with Ovie Faruq
Faruq, on the other hand, had quite the contrasting journey to get to the artist he is today. After studying finance in university and working at a bank post graduation, it took Faruq years to find his way back to the digital art he had harbored a passion for since his teenage years.
“I used to create a lot of digital art when I was a teenager from the age of 13 to 18. It was mainly photo manipulation, or just creating ultimate reality or parallel universes,” Faruq said. “And then I stopped creating art for about 15 years, because I just went to university and went into finance for 10 years, so there's a completely different job. I didn't do anything creatively for a while, and then in the last couple of years, I kind of just got back into it,” he added. After kick starting his artistic journey once again, Faruq jumped right back into his surrealist style with bright neon colors and his signature skull character, going on to experimenting with animation later on.
“That character only really came about maybe about a year and a half ago when I started drawing things. I was working in my old job at the time, and it was meant to be semi autobiographical,” Faruq explained. “I'm there physically, I'm completely functional and doing all the stuff but really, you just feel a bit soulless because you're doing things that you don't think have any real value to society…. So that was the idea behind this character. It is kind of meant to be like a corporate slave.” Faruq cited his neon palette in relation to his childhood, seeing the big lights and colors of London on the drive to see family.
Similarly to Aslan Studios, The Boston Globe reached out to Ovie Faruq due to his work on NFTs. Although he had no choice in which piece of art he got to recreate, Faruq was more than excited to take on Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” his favorite piece stolen in the heist.
Ovie Faruq’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” his only seascape.
Faruq took matters into his own hands, focusing on the three prominent figures in Rembrandt’s seascape and putting his own stylization into play. While including the original structure and center points of the piece, he inverses the colors and adds a toxic green ocean to accompany some rainbow-color vomit.
“One thing that stood out to me was there's the guy that's throwing up over the side of the ship. There's one that's supposed to be Rembrandt himself, and there's another person that's supposed to be Christ,” Faruq said. “Then I wanted to just flip the colors around so rather than it being a realistic ocean in the nighttime, I like the idea of having this luminous yellow color that’s like toxic waste. And then just have a purpley blue sky because I think that purple and that toxic yellow, are very, very contrasting. I wanted people to recognize it and be like, hey, this is Rembrandt's piece. But I wanted to change the colors and change the characters and everything to make it feel a little bit more modern.”
Faruq was only vaguely familiar with the heist from watching the Netflix documentary, but when it comes to stealing art, Faruq’s NFT business has him thinking about copyright in a completely different way.
“Everyone should go ahead and copy it and do whatever they want, because I view that as good promotion for your marketing,” Faruq explained when asked about whether he ever worried about someone stealing his own pieces. “My view is if loads of people want to redo it, that’s a compliment to the original.” The same thing can be said of the 13 reimagined pieces- these modern artworks honor and complement the work of the original artists in unique ways.
Listen to our conversation with Ovie Faruq in full here:
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum continues to stand resolutely on the corner of the Fens, bolstered by years of newfound success from the publicity of tragedy, full with historical and cultural treasures, yet yearning for those it has lost.
In today’s revolutionary digital age, where capacity at our fingerprints was out the reach of Rembrant’s wildest dreams, projects such as Boston Globe Media's “13 Works of Art, Reimagined” keep the beauty of his, and that of so many artists’ of ages gone by, art alive. This is a vital mission. The importance of pairing new technology with tradition in the art world is essential for our culture with the rise of automation, aggregation and appropriation.
For Sarana and Ovie, reimagining works of historical stature with color and digital innovation was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Masterpieces, seemingly lost forever, recreated and modernized. Frames, empty for 33 years, full once again.