Entertainment

A new Netflix docuseries revisits the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist

The director of "This Is a Robbery" discusses the most surprising aspects of the case and the one person he wishes he could have interviewed.

"This is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist."
A scene from "This is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist." Courtesy of Netflix

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, one of the world’s most lucrative art heists took place in Boston.

As revelers celebrated St. Patrick’s Day around the city, two men disguised as Boston Police officers made off with 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum worth a total of $500 million.

Among the purloined art was Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only Rembrandt seascape in existence, and Vermeer’s The Concert. To this day, no arrests have been made and the art has never been found, despite the museum offering a $10 million reward for information leading to its recovery.

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While the Gardner story is more well-known in the Boston area, the theft will soon become familiar to a worldwide audience thanks to “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” a new Netflix docuseries that arrives Wednesday on the streaming platform.

Directed by Colin Barnicle, “This Is a Robbery” is an episodic look at the entire saga, jumping back and forth through time to offer up theories, identify suspects, and even show up at the courthouse as one of the heist’s suspects walks out of jail more than a decade earlier than expected.

The story hits close to home for Barnicle and his brother Nick, who co-produced the film: Having grown up in the Boston area as the son of former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, Colin told Boston.com that as the brothers began researching the case, they kept running into familiar names.

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“We’d read affidavits or judicial write-ups, and some of the names were people we knew,” Barnicle said. “Whether they were lawyers or police officers or even some of the criminals that we had met while my dad went around Boston, driving around writing columns while we were in the backseat. As anybody from the metro Boston area kind of knows, the city operates like a small town. Everybody knows each other, and you’re one degree away from everybody else.”

Long-time Globe readers will run into familiar names and faces while watching as well. Executive produced by Boston Globe Media Partners CEO Linda Pizzuti Henry, “This Is a Robbery” features interviews with Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, Globe reporter Shelley Murphy, and former Globe Spotlight reporter Stephen Kurkjian, who wrote an in-depth book on the heist.

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In an interview with Boston.com, Barnicle spoke about the most surprising discoveries he made while researching the theft, the one person he wishes would’ve sat down for an interview, and why he’s hopeful the docuseries will spur new leads in the long-unsolved crime.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

How long did it take to produce the docuseries, from idea stage to final product?

We started researching it in 2014, and first officially pitched it that year. We started shooting in 2016, and in 2017, we made a pilot and pitched it everywhere. Luckily, we landed at Netflix, which was the right place. I won’t say that the genre of true crime caught up to it, but if we had gotten the green light to do this in 2014, it probably wouldn’t have been as good.

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What surprised you the most when you started doing research for this docuseries?

The amount of people we knew. We’d read affidavits or judicial write-ups, and some of the names that came out of it were people we knew. Whether they were lawyers or police officers or even some of the criminals that we had met while my dad went around Boston, driving around writing columns while we were in the backseat. As anybody from the metro Boston area knows, the city operates like a small town. Everybody knows each other, and you’re one degree away from everybody else.

Secondarily, what was surprising was the case itself — that there were no arrests, there was no evidentiary finding, there’s no verdict for the case. There’s literally nothing that you can file a Freedom of Information Act on for this case, because it’s never gotten to that level. Finding evidence around the case from the outside, looking in, was new to us. How do you get files from a courthouse in Suffolk County from 1986 that aren’t digitized, you know? Things of that nature.

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Anne Hawley, Director Emerita of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, answers questions in 1990 following the robbery.

There must have been hours of footage left on the cutting room floor. How did you decide what to prioritize among the four episodes to best tell this story?

I think we sat down on camera with about 60 people, and only half of those make it into the series. We wanted to make sure that we had a four-part series that had a narrative arc where somebody from Des Moines, Iowa, can watch it and somebody from Boston can watch it and feel like they know just as much about the case.

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My brother and I, we’re from the area, but the other producers weren’t, so we’d run stuff by them. Like, “Will people know where the museum is in comparison to the parade in South Boston? Would they know that the parade always happened on a Sunday?” We needed to go into those kinds of details, but we also wanted to drill the story down to its essence.

Who is the one person you wish you could’ve sat down with who didn’t agree to an interview?

Definitely Rick Abath, the guard on duty that night. I spent basically five years calling his lawyer every week. He answered really detailed questions over email, and it seemed like he was OK with being interviewed after about three-and-a-half years of working him. And then something happened in August 2019 — I don’t know what — but they just completely backed off.

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He was fairly skittish about going in front of a camera again. I think because there’s been two grand juries held on this that he’s been involved in. Every time he says something in the media that is different from what he said in that grand jury, he gets pulled back in.

A scene from “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist.”

The Gardner Museum still has a $10 million reward for information leading to recovery of the stolen works. Do you think the art will ever be found? And do you hope this documentary will help?

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I think if the docuseries doesn’t help, then they’re gone. Netflix literally has 500 million people subscribed to it. This is like the biggest wanted poster in the world.

I do hope that this will jog something loose, at least for some of the minor works. I know that the Eagle Finial, the least valuable of all of the works, was seen in Hartford — or at least [authorities] think it was seen by an informant in Hartford, in a grease pit of [person of interest] Bobby Gentile’s.

With the lesser works, they could be on someone’s wall, and you wouldn’t really know that they were stolen. If you go to grandma’s house and she has [Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee] on her wall, that’s a little bit tougher to hide. But I do think some of them are out there for sure.

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This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” debuts Wednesday, April 7 on Netflix.

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