Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads—and a $5 million reward—none of the paintings have been recovered. 

After the death of famed art detective Harold Smith, reporter Ulrich Boser decided to take up the case. Exploring Smith's unfinished leads, Boser travels deep into the art underworld and comes across a remarkable cast of characters, including a brilliant rock 'n' roll thief, a gangster who professes his innocence in rhyming verse, and the enigmatic late Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner herself (summary from Goodreads).

One of my reading resolutions for 2011 was to read more non-fiction, a genre I normally don't give as much attention to since I find a lot of the books very dry. However, I love a good mystery (especially one involving art theft- it must be due to my early watching of How to Steal A Million with Audrey Hepburn) and it's amazing that after 21 years this case is still unsolved. And with last week's capture of mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, who was suspected of being involved in the theft, this case has been back in the headlines recently. It's always cool when real life intersects with what you're reading at the moment!
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt
The Gardner Heist introduces a wide range of potential suspects and investigators, from prolific thief Myles Conner and his lawyer Marty Leppo to the Cockney nicknamed "Turbo" who aids in the investigation. Though I occasionally lost track of who was who (especially the law enforcement officers) I enjoyed the way the book was organized, with chapters focusing on certain people and their role in the case and then tying them back into the bigger picture of the theft. It heightened the suspense and helped keep the story moving.

Boser occasionally adopts a grandiose tone with regards to the theft and the importance of the art, and his descriptions sometimes verge on the overly dramatic (one character eats ribs "gnawing each bone as clean as a sun-bleached skeleton"). However, I wasn't at all familiar with the case or the missing paintings before I read The Gardner Heist, but by the end I found myself feeling the loss of the artwork and wishing I could see The Storm on the Sea of Galilee or Vermeer's The Concert in person. 

Chez Tortoni, Manet
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. The Gardner Heist is a readable and interesting account of the theft and the following investigation that offer several compelling theories on who might have taken the priceless paintings. Boser still maintains a website where people can submit tips and find out more information about the case:

Details: published by HarperCollins, 2009
Source: library copy


  1. I'm very curious about this book -- I read about the Gardner heist a little bit earlier this year (or last year? I can't remember) in this book by Edward Dolnick, and it sounded intriguing.I'd love to learn more.

  2. I hope you enjoy the's fascinating how there still hasn't been a break in the case, even 21 years later! I'll have to look for the book by Edward Dolnick.