If a picture tells a thousand words, what a tale is stored in its frame?
Every year, thousands of art lovers flock to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to gaze at empty picture frames. Left as a reminder of an art heist that still has police baffled, the ornate, handmade frames that once held works by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer and Degas provide the only remaining clues to the identity of the masterminds behind the theft.
It was still bitterly cold in the early hours following St Patrick's Day in 1990 when two men dressed as police officers arrived at the museum, claiming to be responding to an emergency call. After gaining entry, the thieves overpowered the guards, handcuffing them. Over the next hour and twenty one minutes the men wandered the halls of the museum, helping themselves to thirteen significant works of art, and cutting the largest pieces from their heavy frames.
It is known that the thieves made two trips to their car before finally making off with Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer's The Concert, Manet's Chez Tortoni and Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk along with several Degas sketches and other artworks of significance.
The works have never been seen again.
That the masterpieces have never been forgotten is in large part due to the stunning, custom frames of the most significant pieces, which remain hanging in the museum as a reminder of the heist.
In 2013 the FBI used DNA evidence left on the remaining frames in another attempt to find the culprits, years after the robbery, using technology founded in the latest advances in DNA analysis. While this led to an official announcement that the thieves had been identified, they were never named and the works have not been recovered.
Theories abound about the culprits of the greatest art heist in history, naming everyone from conniving Corsican mobsters to Irish gun smugglers and scheming Hollywood screenwriters, and the museum has never given up hope. Continuing to work closely with the FBI and US Attorney's Office, the museum increased its offered reward to $10 million in 2017 for information resulting in recovery of the $500 million artworks.
One thing is certain. Without the poignant, daily reminder of the theft left behind by these handcrafted picture frames the heist may have become just another unsolved art robbery.
While few could claim to paint like Rembrandt, everyone knows the intense attachment they feel for their own artworks and photos, choosing to protect their own precious memorabilia with custom picture framing.