The Gardner Museum Theft, considered by many to be the greatest in art history, remains an unsolved crime. Theories about the heist have been fought over across media platforms for decades, from books to articles, to podcast series.
Now Netflix enters the ring with “This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” a four-part documentary by the Barnicle Brothers. While the series starts well enough, with each of the roughly four hours providing a great deal of interesting food for thought about both the background to the crime and its subsequent investigation, by the final episode I found myself asking, “What was the point?”
Early in the morning on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers were buzzed in by a security guard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Approximately 81 minutes later, they made off with a haul of stolen art estimated to be worth more than half a billion dollars, including works by Degas, Manet, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.
As noted by one of the law enforcement experts interviewed in the film, 81 minutes is an incredibly long time in which to carry out a theft, particularly if you don’t know whether the police are on their way. Without giving away any spoilers, it suffices to say the first episode of the documentary examines many datapoints that provoke repeated eyebrow-raising.
For example, why did no one ever conduct a follow-up interview with two possible eyewitnesses who contacted the authorities? Why did no one examine the security footage from the night before the theft, for many years afterward? Why were security alarm printouts never shown to the expert called in by the museum after the theft, until this documentary was made?
Many of these questions are left unanswered, but the filmmakers do a good job of posing several tough questions about the people involved in this event, both before and after it took place.
The remainder of the documentary explores some of the more popular theories about possible motives for the heist. For example, the “Dr. No” theory, which holds that the objects were stolen to order for a Bond villain type, is dismissed rather quickly, although the idea of a nefarious collector having art stolen to order does continue to crop up in more recent news coverage of art crime. Likewise, the theory that the art was stolen to finance the purchase of weapons for the Irish Republican Army — a hypothesis particularly popular in certain circles — isn’t given a great deal of credence by the filmmakers.
Instead, the documentary hangs its hat on a somewhat complicated theory involving the use of stolen art as a “get out of jail free” bargaining chip in negotiations with law enforcement, the connections between associates of various Mafiosi, and perhaps most interestingly, with the idea that the thieves may have had an inside man at the Gardner.
If you enjoyed “The Wire” and all of its many convolutions, then you’re going to enjoy this part of the film immensely. Yet that very same focus on procedural detail and unexpected connections between shady people is also the film’s weak point when telling this particular story.
The lack of a narrator or voiceover to bring together the various elements of the plot as they are being told, relying instead on graphics such as animated timelines and maps, begins to take a visual toll fairly quickly. Instead of someone simply telling us that something happened a few years before or after the main thrust of the story, or in a different town or state, our eyes are forced to go sliding around on the screen, as if we were following the route of the Uber driver who has taken a wrong turn while coming to pick us up. After a while, it becomes a tedious combination of video gameplay and gee-whiz editing techniques.
More importantly, apart from the odd bit of nausea-inducing drivel that passes for intellectual depth among those fluent in artspeak — e.g., art doesn’t exist if you aren’t there to see it — the stories behind the works of art, much like the art itself, are conspicuous by their near-absence.
It isn’t until midway through Episode 3 — and a brief bit of commentary from Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, on the Gardner’s stolen “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633) — that we’re presented with something more substantial to pause and reflect upon, regarding the significance of this painting.
Some of the less valuable stolen items are, fairly enough, rather summarily dismissed from the script once they’ve been acknowledged, but the series would have benefitted from a closer examination of the more important objects that went missing.
Presumably, this doesn’t take place because, although this film is about an art heist, the art itself is simply a MacGuffin: the stolen items could just as easily have been cars, jewels, or Pokémon cards. At times, I felt as if I was watching a giant whiteboard workup for a season of a complicated television series and all that was missing was a nod to the special guest stars.
Not only is the stolen art secondary to the film, but we’re also told virtually nothing about Isabella Stewart Gardner. We learn nothing about her motivations for establishing the museum, or why or how she acquired at least some of the particular pieces that were stolen.
We are told — because we live in a stupid, vulgar time — that Gardner considered herself “sexy,” a word one doubts was part of the vocabulary of the lady in question. The comment put me in mind of the exchange in “Ocean’s Eleven” when George Clooney asks for clarification about the peccadillos of Monet versus Manet, and Julia Roberts notes, “They also painted occasionally.”
This brings us to the question that I couldn’t answer by the time I finished the series: what was the point of this documentary? Was it the intent of the filmmakers to try to help recover the stolen art, even though that isn’t their job and (presumably) no one asked them to do so? Or was the viewer meant to sit back in a comfy chair and amuse himself, by watching weirdo townsfolk with missing teeth and thick accents doing and saying terrible things?
Whatever its purpose, there’s certainly enough material in “This Is A Robbery” to keep the viewer interested for a while, but the fact that by the final episode I only made a couple of notes from nearly an hour’s worth of material speaks for itself.