This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist is Netflix’s new four-part limited docuseries that paints a picture of theft in the dark. After midnight on St. Patrick’s Day 1990, when two men in police uniforms buzzed the intercom of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a small Boston art museum with an impressive collection of European art. “Boston Police,” they said. “We have received a report of a malfunction on the site.”
The night security guard, Rick Abath – a dedicated deadhead with a penchant for pre-shift “reefer” – immediately let them in without a doubt. Earlier in the evening, a fire alarm had gone off mysteriously and his partner, Randy Hestand, was walking his route through the museum, so he was alone at the front desk. One of the men in uniform studied Abath, looking him up and down, before asking him to send Hestand on the radio and get up.
“Do I know you? Do I know you?” he said. “I think an arrest warrant has been issued.”
Abath, again, immediately obeyed and placed his hands above his head above the wall. He was fascinated. Hestand walked in and was also handcuffed. There was a pause before the other man in uniform said, “Gentlemen, this is a robbery.”
In the ensuing 81 minutes, the couple stole a total of 13 works of art and antiquities from the museum, the most notable of which was “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt’s only known seascape. While Abath and Hestad were handcuffed and taped in the basement of the museum, the thieves cut most of the paintings from their frames and left in the middle of the night, through the waves of St. Paddy’s Day revelers on the streets of Boston. unnoticed.
It was the largest art heist in the world, totaling about $ 500 million in stolen works. It also remains unsolved – although, as you can imagine, there are many, many theories.
“This Is a Robbery” is largely devoted to identifying who could have committed this crime, a tricky endeavor since, as a defense attorney puts it, most investigators believe that “Anyone who committed the robbery is beaten or died from natural causes, or some might say unnatural causes. ”
It’s still a poignant premise, though, right? You have eccentric personalities from the art world and dry FBI investigators clashing with each other. There is a lot of money at stake, wasted crime scenes and possible murders. ‘This Is a Robbery’ occasionally lives up to the promise of the engaging introduction, but is largely held back by the creators’ clear desire to methodically introduce and reject various theories, as well as an unfortunate lack of visual interest ( especially for a series centered on art).
Two prime suspects quickly emerge in the series’ first episode: Abath, then 23 years old, and Myles J. Connor, a charismatic convicted art thief who split his time between breaking in and performing acoustic sets at The Beachcomber Bar. However, those starting points are dead ends.
It seemed that Abath’s only crime was – as former Boston Globe reporter and author Stephen A. Kurkjian said – “in a psychedelic fog.” The Connor theory disappeared when investigators realized that he was serving 11 years in prison at the time for another art theft. At that point, it became apparent that, instead of starting with who had committed the heist, they should back up and consider why it was done; Determining motive could lead to the perpetrators.
In addition to the Rembrandt, there were also some unusually esoteric objects that were taken, such as a Chinese gu vat and a Napoleonic flag finial. These weren’t big items and they were very specific, almost as if the thieves were given a “shopping list” from a wealthy art-obsessed billionaire or Russian oligarch who wanted the art for his personal collection.
Former Scotland Yard researcher Dick Ellis was quick to dismiss this idea; art can be tricky to move, even on the black market, and there are always concerns about a leak when reward money is on the table. Other theories emerge: the Irish Mafia sold the work to finance weapons for the Irish Republican Army; the Italian mafia used the paintings to fund other criminal ventures or as a “get out of prison” card for their members; the thieves planned to use the paintings as a kind of “collateral” to buy pounds of cocaine (this is Connor’s personal theory, interestingly enough).
Each of these theories are explored quite thoroughly and then dismissed, until a favorite finally emerges midway through the third episode. The series is incredibly informative; director Colin Barnicle fills the episodes with history of the FBI’s obsession with organized crime in the 1990s, of the cocaine infiltration in Boston throughout the decade, and even of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself.
But it also results in a frustrating stop-start pace. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate deliberate and subtle true crime, especially after the exploitation disaster that was Netflix’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.” But the momentum of the story is interrupted again and again.
This is especially true given the lack of visual interest in “This Is a Robbery”. In between some snappy archive tape and reenactments, the series relies on a rotating selection of Boston B-roll and drone shots to fill the space between contemporary interviews. You could close your eyes for much of the series and the experience wouldn’t be much different.
However, it should be noted that the music in “This Is a Robbery” is really spectacular, especially in the real crime sphere, where scoring can get pretty cheesy really fast. Composer Jason Hill – who previously scored Netflix’s “Mindhunter” and “The Confession Killer” – created a score for the series that seamlessly blends lo-fi beats with stringed instruments for an exciting yet understated effect.
“This Is a Robbery” is yet another Netflix docuseries project that could have benefited from the scrapping of one or two episodes. ‘Stale’ shouldn’t be a word to describe the retelling of the world’s greatest art heist – especially if you have a cast of characters made up of gangsters, stoners, and ex-art thieves – but the lows of the series, it is unarguable. However, there are plenty of narrative highlights to make it worth checking out.
“This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” is streaming on Netflix.