‘This is a Robbery’: An in-depth look at infamous art heist

May 19, 2021

On April 7, 2021, Netflix released 'This is a Robbery,' an investigative docuseries exploring the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Photo courtesy of Netflix UK

On April 7, 2021, Netflix released ‘This is a Robbery,’ an investigative docuseries exploring the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Mass., 11 picture frames hang empty on the gilded walls, as if the original art inside them never existed. The vacant frames serve as a lasting reminder of one of the most infamous and elaborate art heists in history: two thieves dressed as police officers spent 81 minutes inside the museum before taking off with 13 works of art, which are now valued at $500 million. 

The heist has not been solved to this day, but Colin and Nick Barnicle’s new docuseries This is a Robbery attempts to unravel its complicated mystery. The show was released on Netflix on April 7, 2021, and consists of four hour-long episodes that delve into the history of the museum, what happened during the heist, and theories about who may have orchestrated it. 

The series is opened by an eerie, provocative introduction that sets the tone for each episode. Episodes are composed of interviews with local journalists, lawyers, and experts who have been investigating the crime for years, alongside reenactments of the heist and footage from  the crime scene. The wide variety of interviews provides a thorough perspective into the case without becoming repetitive or data-heavy, balanced aptly with more dramatic storytelling elements. From former museum security guards to relatives of Mafia members to infamous art thief Myles Connor, the series has no shortage of colorful characters and compelling narratives.

The series starts at the time of the crime. In the early morning of March 18, 1990 – right after St. Patrick’s Day, when the city of Boston is still distracted by parades and parties – two men dressed as police officers were buzzed into the museum by the security guard on duty, Richard Abath. The men told Abath that they were investigating a disturbance, then handcuffed and duct-taped him and another guard on duty. The thieves then declared the infamous line that inspired the show’s title: “Gentlemen, this is a robbery.” 

After spending over an hour undisturbed inside the museum, the thieves managed to escape 

with 11 paintings – including works by Rembrandt, Degas, and more – an ancient Chinese vase, and a Napoleonic finial. Notably, the stolen paintings were cut out of their frames, which would have taken the thieves a considerable amount of time without damaging the art. 

The museum was originally commissioned by Isabella Stewart Gardner to display her personal art collection, and opened in 1903. Visitors might not find the building unique from its exterior, but the inside boasts an elaborate collection of historical art displayed in opulent themed rooms, and a sprawling green courtyard framed by Venetian columns and arches.

One important part of the museum’s history that may have motivated the crime was its lack of substantial security. In the 1980s, the FBI apprehended a plan by local criminals to rob the museum. Despite this, no security cameras or other precautions were put in place, and the museum was known for its lack of surveillance. 

A prominent theory the series explores is that members of the Boston Mafia arranged for the art to be stolen and transported across the country. The major suspects in the case include Boston mobsters Carmello Merlino and Bobby Donati, and many of the suspects with connections to the Mafia have all died or been incarcerated for other crimes since. While the theories differ, This is a Robbery attempts to detangle the twisted, violent web of Mafia connections to the heist. 

Frustratingly, none of the leads explored by the FBI or journalists have panned out, and the crime has gone unsolved for over 30 years. While the case’s statute of limitations has passed, the Gardner museum continues to offer a $10 million reward for any information that leads to the recovery of the art.

What started as two brothers’ interest in a Boston legend turned into an investigative docuseries years in the making. This is a Robbery captivates audiences with hair-raising scenes and thorough interviews, and fans of true crime and art history should definitely give it a watch – if not for a resolution to the theft, then for the engrossing plot and cohesive, creative storytelling.

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‘This is a Robbery’: An in-depth look at infamous art heist