This is a Review: The World’s Biggest Art Heist

This is a Review: The World’s Biggest Art Heist

St Patricks Day 1990. While the people of Boston celebrated the festivities, two men dressed as police officers snuck into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole over $500 million worth of art. Thirty years later, they are yet to be found.

Tucked away behind the opinion-dividing docuseries ‘Seaspiracy’ and BBC thriller ‘The Serpent’, which dominated the Netflix trending table last week, ‘This Is A Robbery…’ crept up to the number two position and hooked viewers worldwide. Directed by Colin Barnicle, this four-part programme recites the mystery which had FBI investigators searching far and wide for leads, eventually concocting the perfect recipe for the modern crime documentary: mobsters, dirty cops, and inside jobs.

Including interviews with eyewitnesses and law enforcement officers, flashy blueprint graphics, and never-before-seen footage, Netflix delves into the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

What actually happened?

For those who haven’t yet watched the show or don’t want to sit through three and a half hours of an unsolved case, here’s the situation:

St Patrick’s Day 1990. As the residents of Massachusetts party the evening away, the outskirts of the city lie sleepy and quiet. Inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a college student clocked in for his part-time job as night-security staff – where admittedly, nothing much ever happened.

Around 1AM, two men dressed in Boston Police Uniforms are spotted in an unmarked car outside the building, before reportedly entering the museum on account of ‘a disturbance’. The next eighty-one minutes saw the pair duct-tape Abath’s face and hands in the downstairs basement, before stealing over half a billion dollars’ worth of artefacts – including Rembrandt’s ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ and  ‘A Lady and Gentleman in Black’, along with just under half a billion dollars’ worth of artefacts.

The documentary opens in Netflix’s typical over-dramatized fashion, with alluding theatrics and snippets of information – which, quite honestly, advertises a completely different show. As a beginner aesthete, I was under the false pretence the documentary would focus predominantly on the stolen artefacts, rather than prospective investigations into just about every criminal in the whole of Boston. After two strangely timed eyewitness accounts (before viewers were even aware of the situation), the show strips back to its bare bones, explaining the history behind the museum, and the sentimentality it holds to its viewers, and staff.

The History of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Opened in 1903 by art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, the building features a green, luscious garden encompassed by Venetian Palace inspired walls – a product of the Gardener’s travels in Europe.

But this is where the documentary falls short. To put it plainly, the documentary did some private research on Gardner and then decided to focus on and exaggerate one aspect of her character. Gardner’s passion for charity, dedication to the building, and love of travel were erased from the show’s recount, instead opting to discuss her eccentric and flirtatious nature. The documentary also failed to mention how Gardner’s worldwide travels with her husband was done in order to treat her depression following a miscarriage as well as the death of her own son.

Although briefly touching on the beauty and wonder the museum holds, I do think the history behind the building’s founder was simply rushed, especially given the fact it was her pride and joy.

What is ‘Artnapping’?

After an in-depth explanation of the crime in ‘Ep 1: They Looked Like Cops’, the documentary then turns to investigate each possible lead for suspects, the first of which being the night-security, Abath. Now, although the student displayed a sustained apathetic attitude at work (having previously given in his notice), the show arguably portrays the guard as the stereotypical ‘stoner guy in a band’. I think during an investigation as notorious as this, enforcing general assumptions on potential suspects is cheap and creates an unreliable narrative – especially given the show’s potential for success.

One key element of interest was the explanation into art robbery (or artnapping). Artnapping is often used for collateral and loan security by criminals (due to the item’s immense value), and so usually arises during weapon or drug trafficking. Powerful drug lords and dictators often use ‘Theft to Order’, hiring professional thieves to collect a shopping list of priceless items for private collections. Due to inflation, demand, and a new-found accessibility to the arts, celebrated pieces only continue to increase in price – therefore making them more targetable by thieves.

A Detour Through Boston’s Mob Culture

It’s not until ‘Ep 2: ‘We’ve Seen It’, that the documentary’s main focus, Mob culture in Boston, is really addressed. Although its trailer briefly touches on the subject, it seemed an unforeseen progression from the art narrative that wasn’t really welcome. What followed was a catalogue of names, faces, and situations that by the end of the next episode had morphed into one.

Whether it was Myles Connor Jr (the notorious art thief, and the first and only suspect I really remembered), Danati, or Guarante, each Italian mobster felt like a fever dream that was sort of familiar. I suppose for true crime fans, the overburden of names and faces comes naturally; but partnered with computerised reconstructions and FBI level information, it all became lost in translation, compared to the understandable opening to the series.

Final Thoughts

The series would be more coherent if spread out over six episodes instead of four fifty-minute segments. Armed with pen, paper, and a lot of research time, I still cease to understand the involvement of some key influential figures to the case, and why the public are only being informed of this nearly thirty years on, despite the $10 million reward up for grabs.

All in all, ‘This Is A Robbery…’ works well as a true crime documentary, perfect for binging in just under one afternoon. Its array of accounts and interviews with industry professionals make it a compelling, encapsulating watch – if you pay close attention. However, given the excitement I felt when thinking Netflix had released a show around fine art, I was severely disappointed by the lack of credit it gave Isabella Stewart Gardner for her commitment to the museum and how it instead morphed into a Mobster investigation. For a show about stolen art, there wasn’t much coverage of it in the grand scheme of things.

Words by Simone Harrison.

Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska.

Can’t get enough of art and TV? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

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