Recounting a daring art heist

New Netflix crime documentary shares details about how two men got away with stealing classics

This Is A Robbery: The World's Greatest Art Heist. photo © Netflix

Netflix's new crime docuseries This Is A Robbery: The World's Greatest Art Heist attempts to bring closure to one of the world's most brazen crimes that has yet to be resolved until today.

On the night of March 18, 1990, in Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -- home to artwork from a string of world-class artists -- two men posing as law enforcement officers calmly entered the building and after binding up the security guards with duct tape, robbed the museum of millions of dollars of precious art.

Despite an exhausting search for the culprits and an attractive reward for leads, this continues to be a cold case. This criminal act has left more questions than answers due in part to what comes across as a sketchy investigation, followed by a lack of evidence to hold the most likely suspects accountable.

In a reenactment of how the robbery unfolded, we are taken back to the night the robbers entered the colonial-style museum in suspicious conditions, tied up the security guards, and went on to loot in one hour and 21 minutes art worth US$500 million (15.6 billion baht). Included in the spoils were original artworks from the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Manet.

The crime scene photos raised a number of red flags, one of which was the rather careless manner in which the perpetrators conducted the haphazard act, by prying open centuries-old works of art from their frames in a rough manner before rolling it up and vanishing into the night.

While there is mention of recent developments and the leading suspects in this robbery case, no one has actually ever been charged for this crime and the stolen art has yet to be recovered despite the attractive reward.

The reality is that the offence was daring and audacious. The hotly debated notion now is how it has managed to remain unsolved for this long? Due to the numerous twists and turns the case has encountered thus far in terms of investigation and suspects, the most likely scenarios behind the heist are introduced to the audience.

To spice up the narrative, we get to hear different perspectives and a wide range of assorted views from authorities, legal figures, and the relatives of suspects, with timelines thrown in for good measure to provide relevance.

The four episodes are in no rush to explain the how and why or for that matter the who and what, choosing instead to take time to reflect. The well-sourced content we get to watch comes from contributors that to this day amazingly still have a vivid picture of the events that transpired over three decades ago.

The docuseries does experience a couple of hiccups, especially in its efforts to alternate between superficially digging into major issues like the impact of the mob around the world or skimming through the IRA and its afflictions to the Boston mob in what seems a blink of an eye. By repeating details of the crime itself for no particular reason, it leaves a bad aftertaste to what could have been a good piece of work.

I find the docuseries interesting primarily because the case and its numerous players are an interesting bunch of characters worth listening to. However, what makes the series mediocre is the fact that it could have done more to erase the glitches along the way.

Certainly, there are numerous true-crime series that also conclude with a question mark.

I found myself frustrated by the lack of closure this case provides through the information that is shared. I do believe more effort could have been put in that.

In my opinion, the saving grace here was all the memorable characters that were interviewed.

Moreover, another letdown was the fact the series concluded that what had happened at the Gardner in 1990 was somehow connected to the Boston mob members stealing a Rembrandt painting to use as criminal collateral.

Was this the possible closure the director put out there with the thought that it carried entertainment value is anyone's guess.

However, what occurred at the Gardner was so nonsensical that it certainly deserved a better conclusion.

This Is a Robbery: The World's Greatest Art Heist

Starring Shelley Murphy, Anne Hawley, Dick Ellis

Now streaming on Netflix

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