The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist is an enthralling mystery. It’s the single largest art theft in history with neither any arrests nor recovery of the stolen artwork after 31 years. The hit Netflix series “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” takes advantage of the appeal in true crime stories and has rocketed the local Boston epic, bringing public attention to the still unsolved mystery.
Featured in the documentary series is a familiar face in the Armenian community—Steve Kurkjian, author of the 2015 book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. Kurkjian, credited as production consultant, was interviewed on-camera by documentary filmmakers from his home in 2019, contributing decades of experience as a reporter and an investigative reporter to the recovery of these important pieces. This story is personal to him on many levels.
His father Anooshavan fled the Armenian Genocide and immigrated to the US in 1920. He attended Watertown High School and earned a scholarship to The Vesper George School of Art. As an art student, every day he would walk past the venerable Museum of Fine Arts and instead visit the Gardner Museum to study the masters because it was free and open to the public.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—a venetian palazzo in the heart of Boston—was built in 1899 by its namesake following the unexpected death of her husband. Throughout her life, Gardner purchased masterpieces sourced from all over the world to grace the walls of her museum as a gift to the people of Boston. Her intention was to ensure all can access, appreciate and find inspiration from the paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, books and decorative arts. “She knew that civilizations that survive are civilizations that appreciate and inspire art,” said Kurkjian.
On St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed of 13 pieces by notable artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas, valued at over $500 million.
Kurkjian—a native of Dorchester and three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Boston Globe—was sought out for his familiarity of the case thanks to his book Master Thieves, which features exclusive interviews with key players. After poring through the Museum’s security files and public court documents, Kurkjian found and followed leads not yet utilized by the FBI to develop theories on the culprits and the location of the priceless works. The Netflix feature, he says, is an inflection point on his career. “To see it now, people talking about it, I keep thinking, wait a second, I still have work to do here! I need to pin this guy and connect this theory,” said Kurkjian, “There is nothing we know here in this case,” he continued.
Like any good thriller with a twist, there’s also an Armenian connection to the Gardner heist. Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” was purchased by Gardner at auction from Dikran Khan Kélékian in 1922 for $3,400.
“The paintings, wherever they are now, are lost. We have to keep motivated,” said Kurkjian, who believes that public interest and engagement in this case through media coverage, his book and the Netflix documentary will contribute to their recovery and rightful place in the Gardner to inspire all who view them again.
My local library bought 10 copies of this book. It’s still being taken out and talked about. If you haven’t read it, you’ve missed a good read. You’ll read it more than once. Stephen has a way with putting words together that makes you want to go back and read it again. You’ll come to know that he isn’t going to let go of it, not until those paintings are back on the walls.