​The heist of the century

The art world calls it the HEIST OF THE CENTURY ... works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others, stolen from one of America's finest museums. Years later it remains an unsolved mystery, investigated this morning by Erin Moriarty:

Entering the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is like taking a step back in time. The lavish courtyard and art-filled rooms, designed by its namesake and founder, remain much as she left them a century ago ... except for 13 empty spaces.

"When you walk by here, you have all these wonderful pieces, and then you see this empty panel," said Moriarty.

"It makes me want to weep," said museum director Anne Hawley. "It's time to bring them back."

On March 18, 1990, Hawley received news no museum director wants to hear.

"I think it was around 8:00 in the morning," she said. "I was called by the security director here. He told me there had been a theft."

She had no idea how big the theft was.

Earlier that morning, at 1:24 a.m., two men dressed as police officers arrived at the museum's employee entrance.

"The guard answered the buzzer and the thieves said, 'Boston Police, we're responding to a disturbance," said current museum security chief Anthony Amore. "And based on that alone, the guard buzzed them into the building."


The two phony police officers then announced, "Gentlemen, this is a robbery."

The night watchman who let them in, Rick Abath, was tied up in the basement along with another guard. Eighty-one minutes later, the thieves had pulled off the priciest art heist in history, walking out with an estimated half a billion dollars worth of art.

"It was devastating," said Hawley. "It's like having in the family...these works are so important."

Gone: The only known seascape painted by Rembrandt. "It had such motion in it," said Hawley. "The turbulence of the sea and the movement of the ship were so agitated and so strong. It just drew you towards it."

Gone: Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentlemen in Black," as well as a self-portrait etching.

"I think that they were targeting Rembrandts," said Hawley, "and then they decided to just take some other things."

The thieves may have thought "Landscape With an Obelisk" was also a Rembrandt; it was actually painted by one of his students, but they took it anyway.

Also gone: Five works by Degas; Manet's "Chez Tortoni"; an ancient Chinese beaker; and a Napoleonic flag finial.

But the most heartbreaking loss for Hawley was a painting by Vermeer -- one of only 36 in existence.

"The Concert" had been set up by Gardner so viewers could sit in a chair and just contemplate Vermeer's picture. Now the chair sits before an empty frame.

vermeer-the-concert-sophie-calle-what-do-you-see-620.jpg
Left: Vermeer's "The Concert," c. 1664, whereabouts now unknown. Right: "What Do You See? (Vermeer, The Concert)," (detail), 2013, by Sophie Calle.
CBS News/© 2013 by Sophie Calle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Sophie Calle/Paula Cooper Gallery, New York/Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The thieves appeared to know nothing about art, leaving behind more valuable pieces, and using box cutters to remove paintings from frames. "The thieves pulled them off the walls, shattered the glass, and cut the paintings out," said Hawley.

"These guys were burglars," said FBI Special Agent Geoff Kelly. "They would have just as easily stolen a car or somebody's TV. They didn't know what they were doing. These were not sophisticated art thieves.

"They woke up the next morning, after the Gardner heist, I believe, unwittingly realizing that they'd just committed the heist of the century."

But apparently, they were smart enough. More than 25 years later, no arrests have been made, and none of the art has been recovered.

"When people say, 'Well, why is it important?' I say, 'Imagine if you could never hear Beethoven's Seventh Symphony again, ever.' Well, a Vermeer is certainly at that level of creation, and so is the 'Storm of the Sea of Galilee,'" said Hawley.