On March 18th, 1990, a small but beautiful building in Boston called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed. Two men posing as police officers entered the building, tied up the security guards, and spent the next 81 minutes (a long time for any sort of robbery, perhaps indicating a degree of safety they felt in the building) cutting out famous works of art from their frames, rolling them up, and disappearing into the night. At the time, the haul—which included original works by Vermeer, Manet, and Rembrandt—was valued at $500 million, making it the biggest in history. While recent developments have led to some pretty intense suspects, no one has ever been charged with the crime and the art has not been recovered even though a $10 million reward remains unclaimed. How is that possible? The truth is that the crime was daring, but the real story is how it’s remained unsolved. It’s a fascinating case, which means that the recent wave of Netflix true crime docuseries had to get to it eventually.
“This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” unfolds over four episodes and follows what is now a traditional Netflix crime structure of talking heads, archival footage, and re-creations—drone shots are a plus too. The truth is that these series are starting to become numbingly familiar, almost as predictable as something like “Dateline NBC” in their obvious presentations. One hopes for something that would break the form a bit, and some of the more interesting Netflix original crime series have done exactly that. The problem here is that not only is Colin Barnicle’s series formally stale but it never quite figures out what story to tell. It’s almost hyperactive in its focus, especially as it tries to become an art history doc and a detailed look at the Boston mob in later episodes. It’s a weird project that would have been better served by either being longer in order to dig into its many connecting strands or shorter in order to focus more. As is, "This is a Robbery" alternates between superficially digging into major issues like the impact of the mob around the world (it skims through the IRA, for example, and its connection to the Boston mob in a matter of minutes) and repeating details of the crime itself. It’s interesting because the case and its many players are interesting, but it’s poorly made.
There are plenty of memorable characters profiled in “This is a Robbery,” but the first main suspect in this case was Rick Abath, a security guard at the Gardner who not only opened the door to the fake cops but was allegedly the last person in a room wherein one piece of art was stolen according to security monitors. He may have been found with tape around his face, but is it possible he was the inside guy, and he took one painting for himself? Absolutely. But investigators couldn’t find any solid evidence to charge him, and may have been distracted by interest in Myles Connor, a legendary art thief who just happens to be based out of New England. Small problem: he was behind bars at the time.
“This is a Robbery” has a momentum that takes us from suspect to suspect in a way that’s admirably fast-paced but also too speedy at times. It's filled with graphics of timelines and the kind of flowcharts of suspects and their bosses that you see in shows about FBI investigations of the mob, but there’s a difference between comprehensive and cluttered, and Barnicle’s approach too often tends to the latter. It doesn’t help that so much of this story is built on hearsay and conjecture. Somebody might have seen one of the paintings on a visit to a house. Another painting might have been hidden here or there. Maybe Connor was involved, or at least his trailer of stolen goods. Who knows? By the time that “This is a Robbery” starts to really dig into one of its main subjects and how/why he did it, it’s over. It’s hard to shake the feeling that there wasn’t a better, tighter way to tell this story that would feel more satisfying at the end, and the feeling that perhaps that was a few years away given recent developments still unfolding.
Of course, there are plenty of true crime series that end in a question mark or an ellipsis. While some may be frustrated by the lack of closure to this case, there are ways for directors to work around that, and it feels like Barnicle’s main weapon was the personalities he found to interview. (Some of the hardcore Boston accents are truly amazing.) There are enough memorable characters floating around this story that I started to cast the film or HBO series version of it in my head. The entertainment value of Boston mob members stealing a Rembrandt to use as criminal collateral is undeniable. And maybe that’s why this series is disappointing. What happened at the Gardner in 1990 is so crazy that it deserved better.
Now available on Netflix.