The 1990 robbery of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains a part of that institution’s life to this day, as empty frames hang on the wall marking the spots from which paintings were removed. The case remains unsolved — vexingly so. The items stolen, including works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, were cut out of their frames and have never materialized on the black market, meaning they exist in a kind of limbo, presumably somewhere but unaccountable. They’re ghost frames on the wall, missing pieces of art history on a criminal’s wall somewhere, or being used to bolster a deal, or kept unseen in a vault.
That’s what’s at stake in “This Is a Robbery,” a Netflix documentary series directed by Colin Barnicle — not the possibility of solving the case, which authorities have been trying to do for many years, but the question of the ends to which stolen art might be put to use. We are walked through both suspicious incidents around this particular case and, in fairly granular detail, the specifics of how art’s black market works and the ways in which art can become collateral in organized-crime cases, used for something far from the artist’s initial intent. In an era in which the NFT, digital art that exists on a screen, has become the trending term of the moment, there is something powerful about the idea that the physical and tactile has such a lure for robbers and for cops trying to crack a case alike, and there is something especially haunting about those empty frames.
This series has notably good access — I’d point to the art thief Myles Connor, who describes exploits like picking up a Rembrandt while on a museum tour and walking out. Connor, incarcerated during the 1990 heist, is not a suspect but provides insight both into the web of criminality surrounding the story and into the mentality of a thief. It’s perhaps no surprise that Tribeca Enterprises’ Jane Rosenthal’s name is among the producers; aged and visibly unsteady, but sustained by memories of what he was able to pull off, Connor seems a variation on Robert De Niro’s character in “The Irishman.”
The cast expands outwards from its most intriguing hub, encompassing attorneys, museum higher-ups, those connected to suspects, and people with a great deal to say. Defense attorney Martin Leppo makes both for a helpful guide to the use of stolen art as a bargaining chip in criminal cases and a witty voice throughout; the sister-in-law of a suspect brings voice and character to the proceedings and reminds us of just how many people accumulate little pieces of information as a 30-year case runs on. And, much as Connor spoke to the thrill of stealing because one can, a museum administrator indicates just how devastating a loss this was to her — suggesting the role that art plays in the lives of those devoted to it, and the rupture that theft represents.
In all, this makes for a fascinating portrait of an incident that lives on in the memory of a city that has both high culture and organized crime encoded in its DNA. If there was one thing viewers might wish for more of, it’s a bit of serious thought about what value art has — why it is that it’s valuable enough to risk a life stealing, or to spend decades trying to bring back. Treating masterworks as another commodity makes for a frank and realistic take on the mercenary world of art theft, one in which robbers don’t hesitate to brandish a razor and cut paintings from their frames. The series ends with a reminder of just how long the paintings have been stashed somewhere. Viewers are left to hope that, perhaps, they aren’t just being hidden but are, at least by a single set of eyes, being loved.
“This Is a Robbery” launches April 7 on Netflix.