In 2008’s 1970s-era crime film The Bank Job, a group of thieves are convinced to boost a bank’s safe-deposit boxes under the reasoning that even if they’re caught, the embarrassed owners will never step forward to claim their secret treasures. Stealing fine art is just the opposite: The worth and rarity of the goods make it hard for would-be burglars to profit from their haul. Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist: The True Story Of The World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft explores why people steal art anyway, using Boser’s growing obsession with the missing pieces to tunnel into the ongoing search for them.
On March 18, 1990, two thieves restrained the guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and made off with three Rembrandts, a Degas, a Manet, and a Vermeer currently valued at more than $200 million. In spite of posted rewards and the FBI agent specifically assigned to investigate, the works have never been recovered, which attracted the attention of a fine-arts claims adjuster who spent most of his last decade on the case. Twenty years later, the hottest leads point to a serial art thief who was in prison the night of the heist, a charismatic hit man with mob ties, and a member of America’s Most Wanted who hasn’t been seen since 2002.
Boser repeats several warnings that the case would take over his life (including an ominously laid out “Gardner curse”), and it’s easy to see why—those most obsessed by it still believe they’re just one step away from a solution. A scene where Boser treks to Ireland, convinced he’ll be able to pluck a suspect right off the street, is heart-pounding, then absurd, as Boser abruptly realizes the futility of his efforts. The Gardner Heist presents the extant evidence in a way that makes a decades-old escapade seem fresh, and where life offers no conclusions, Boser presents his own reconstruction of the heist with corresponding suspects, even while acknowledging that an admission of guilt would be insufficient without the return of the art. A provision in Gardner’s will prevents trustees from making any changes to her museum, so the empty frames serve as testimony of the museum’s loss; Boser’s book, meanwhile, serves as tribute and as oddly satisfying thriller.