In March of 1990, 13 priceless works of art went missing from Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum and the case of whodunnit, still unsolved almost 30 years later, remains one of the greatest art heists to date, with losses estimated at roughly $500 million. Where once paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Picasso hung in the museum, now only empty frames remain—a constant reminder of the irreconcilable cost of the crime.
But a new podcast, Empty Frames, is cracking the case file back open. Hosts Lance Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri—who also produce and co-host the true crime podcasts Missing Maura Murray and Crawl Space—will delve into the backstory of the crime, re-evaluate previous testimonies in light of new information and attempt to track down where the artworks have ended up.
“When you’re working on a case like this that is 30 years old, a lot of stuff is forgotten or lost in translation,” Reenstierna told Observer. He and Pilleri believe that their long-form reportage style could be helpful, however, since it allows for more community involvement. “Even though we’re often going back to the original policemen and FBI agents, and researching the old newspaper articles, we’re bringing a fresh perspective, as do the listeners. It brings the issue back to being current,” he explained.
But cold cases often go cold for a reason: because no one wants to talk. The Gardner Museum itself tried to scrounge up new information just last year, offering a hefty $10 million for useful leads before a December 31 deadline but to no avail. It’s worth noting that the institution wasn’t looking for names, just potential proof, since the FBI currently believes two men with ties to the mob are responsible for the theft, but the agency is unable to indict them based on the available evidence.
Pilleri said that the aim of Empty Frames is to take up the search for better quality evidence. “Right now, we’re looking at recently found videotape footage from the night before the crime in which an unknown man is seen in the galleries, along with a museum security guard,” he told Observer, explaining that all of the tapes from the night of were also spirited away with the work. “For some reason, this video was overlooked by the FBI in the initial investigation, but it’s opening a whole new avenue of questioning for us.”
Having grown up in the Boston area, Pilleri remembers when the heist first happened, but he didn’t realize until he returned to the case as an adult the gravity of the crime. “I was shocked by how many people were involved in it. Like how many hands the works are believed to have gone through after they initial theft,” Pilleri told Observer. Stolen artwork, after all, can’t be cashed in easily, especially paintings that are as recognizable as the ones lifted from the Gardner Museum. “The aftermath of where these paintings ended up is a much bigger question than who did it.”
Beyond just tracking down the missing paintings, Pilleri and Reenstierna hope that Empty Frames underscores the economic and social impact of museums, and how this crime drastically altered a community, not just locally but globally. Indeed, Rembrandt’s only known seascape was among the paintings that went missing, and given that there are only roughly 30 Vermeer canvases still in existence today, the loss of the Gardner’s The Concert by the Dutch master has a huge impact. “It’s not just about the monetary value of these works,” said Reenstierna. “This was a crime that affects the global art world and even all of history.”
Empty Frames launched on February 6 from AudioBoom.