It was half past midnight on St. Patrick’s Day 1990 when the headlights of a small car pierced the darkness outside the rear entrance of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, according to a grainy black-and-white video released Thursday by investigators of one of the greatest art heists in history.
Illuminated by a lone street lamp, a man is seen leaving the car and walking towards the museum. Seconds later, the man enters through a door. Another camera captures a museum security guard speaking to what appears to be the same man. The car is then seen driving away.
The footage, captured by the museum just 24 hours before the sensational heist, was released for the first time Thursday by federal officials in the hope it will lead them to those responsible for the theft of 13 pieces of art worth at least $500 million.
“We are releasing video images from the night before the theft — images which have not previously been seen by the public — with the hope of identifying an unauthorized visitor to the museum,” United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, said in a statement.
“With the public’s help, we may be able to develop new information that could lead to the recovery of these invaluable works of art,” she said.
The car seen in the footage matches the description of a vehicle that was reportedly parked outside the museum moments prior to the theft on March 18, 1990, authorities said.
The justice department said that the man was allowed into the museum by a security guard but that isn’t visible in the footage.
The FBI tried unsuccessfully to get the low-quality footage enhanced at one of its labs, according to Kristen Setera, an FBI spokeswoman.
Asked why authorities had not released the footage earlier, Setera said the FBI is constantly reexamining the case in an attempt to recover the stolen artwork.
Setera said the museum is still offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen items in good condition. The return of an individual piece of art will fetch a portion of the reward, based on the art’s market value.
Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director, told CNN that witnesses identified the suspicious car from the night of the theft as a compact red hatchback. The video shows a car that “sort of fits that description,” he said.
He said the museum hopes that releasing the video will lead the public to help authorities determine what type of vehicle it was and, ultimately, trace it back to the owner. Amore said the 1990 heist was the last at the museum.
On the day of the theft, two men posing as Boston police officers entered the museum in the middle of the night and tied up two security guards in the basement, authorities said. The thieves also took the video surveillance footage from the night of the robbery, but authorities had access to footage from the night before.
Among the stolen items was a painting called “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer, one of only 34 known paintings by the Dutch artist. Works by Rembrandt, Manet and Degas were also pilfered. The combined value of the art stolen during the Gardner theft is at least $500 million, though they are considered priceless within the art community, according to federal officials.