Review: 'This is a Robbery' presents colorful art world heist, little closure

Netflix 4-parter focuses on 1990 Boston museum robbery

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Dear Art Museum Bigwigs: Don’t hire some scraggly stoner musician dude to head up your security at night.

That is the first and most solid lesson “This is a Robbery: The World’s Greatest Art Heist” offers up. If he or she’s charged with protecting 700 gazillion dollars worth of art, maybe a bit of security experience would be helpful.

Anne Hawley in "This is a Robbery."

Otherwise this four-part documentary about the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 is a rambling if entertaining search for the possible culprits in a major real-world whodunit. Suspects are both plentiful and colorful, if often short-lived, but concrete answers are elusive.

What happened: On March 18, as much of Boston was sleeping off St. Patrick’s Day, two guys in police uniforms knocked on the museum’s door and the scraggly stoner musician dude security guard let them in. Oops. Soon enough that guard and another were in the basement, covered in duct tape.

The thieves took an unusually long time gathering works from Rembrandt and others — as well as a few comparatively worthless pieces — and then split.

The problem with big deal works of art like these is even though a painting may be worth $200 million at a legit auction, who’s going to pay big bucks for something they can’t even hang on the wall? The stolen pieces often end up being used as a bargaining chip; you let Criminal A out of jail, we’ll give you this nice Vermeer piece.

So after looking at the obvious suspects — Boston’s top art thief was in jail at the time and scraggly security dude didn’t come off as a criminal mastermind — the FBI started thinking organized crime. The IRA was a possibility, but the good old Italian Mafia seemed more likely.

Unfortunately, those top suspects tended to end up decapitated in the trunks of their cars or something similar. Tough to question.

The museum is currently offering a reward of $10 million for the art. It’s almost enough to make you want to go talk to some goombahs in Boston. Almost.  

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'This is a Robbery: The World’s Greatest Art Heist'