The story of the greatest art theft of all time is told in the new Netflix series
“This is a Assault” premieres this Wednesday April 7th on the streaming platform. It all happened in Boston in 1990.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, the greatest art theft of all time occurred for just 81 minutes. Two thieves dressed as police broke into the Isabella Stewart Garden Museum in Boston, USA, and left work valued at around 420 million euros.
31 years later, the pieces were never recovered, nor was anyone ever brought to justice on the case. Today’s authorities have a theory that has never been officially proven – and for years the puzzle has grown in popularity.
A new series of documentaries reports in detail on this case. “This Is An Attack: The World’s Greatest Art Theft” premieres on Netflix this Wednesday, April 7th. It has four episodes, each about 50 minutes long. It was performed by Colin Barnicle, a native of Boston, and the phrase “This is a robbery” is said to have been said to the museum security officer on duty, Richard Abath, by one of the thieves.
The attackers took away three paintings by Rembrandt – one of which is the only known seascape by the Dutch painter; a painting by Vermeer (with a scarce collection that doesn’t reach 40 paintings); several sketches by Degas; and works by Manet and Flinck. Although they had gone through many other pieces of greater value, they still took a Chinese vase and a bronze eagle with a Napoleonic flag on it.
Richard Abath, the security guard, was found by police in the tunnels under the Boston Museum who were taped and gagged. At the time, suspicions soon arose that it was an orchestrated crime staged by someone who worked there, and attention quickly turned to the 23-year-old security officer who admitted working with stones several times to go. But nothing has ever been proven.
It is certain that the Isabella Stewart Garden’s security systems were practically rudimentary for a museum full of valuable works. Established in 1899, the management of the museum did not see safety as a priority, and this made the space an easy target.
Isabella Stewart Garden’s director, Anne Hawley, had only been in office for six months when the robbery took place. The museum offered a reward of five million dollars (which later increased to ten million), but the pieces were never found. Hawley stayed in place through 2016 and is one of the main respondents in this Netflix documentary series.
The production, which took more than five years to produce, includes interviews with local journalists and researchers in addition to the team that analyzed thousands of documents. It also focuses on the diverse theories that emerged after the theft and that were expanded and disseminated a few years later in the Internet age.
“We wanted to start with a blank page, without assuming anything, and see where the evidence leads us from there,” Barnicle told The Guardian.
There were two witnesses, two high school teenagers walking out of a party to see two men dressed as cops in a car. It would have been the attackers. Theories ranged from a conspiracy sponsored by the IRA to a crime committed by local gangsters, which the FBI investigation advocates, although it has not been proven. As the series shows, this seems like the most plausible hypothesis.
According to reports, the theft was committed by two employees of the gangster Carmello Merlino. According to this theory, the thieves were George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, 51 and 49, who regularly visited a car repair shop affiliated with the Mafia. Both died in 1991, a year after the attack, one from a cocaine overdose and the other from a shootout.
Merlino was arrested by the FBI in 1999 and convicted of another crime, attempted robbery. He died in prison in 2005. The FBI believes the work was on hold for some time by another associate, Robert Guarente, a man convicted of bank robbery who died in 2004. The only surviving member of the group who could have information about the robbery was David Turner, who was jailed with Merlino in 1999 and released from prison in 2019 at the age of 52. According to the director, he refused to be interviewed for the series.
Although the FBI has no evidence or big theories about the whereabouts of the work, the US Police Department believes it traversed a Mafia-affiliated circuit on networks that ran through Philadelphia and Connecticut. The last alleged sighting of one of the paintings was in 2003.
The series director, Colin Barnicle, believes the robbery was commissioned – and that the thieves and the mafia network only committed the crime to deliver the works to other recipients. Barnicle also hopes the series will pay more attention to this case.
The director believes that some of the smaller pieces, like the Chinese vase or the bronze eagle – or even the poorly crafted sketches of great painters – could now be in the possession of someone who may not even know the correct value or origin. Mainly because at the time of the theft, the large pictures were mainly being promoted by the authorities as they were a top priority. “I hope the series ends one of the works in the frame again,” Barnicle told The Guardian.