This is a Robbery delivers what it promised — a simple, well-told story that does its best to unpack one of America’s most intriguing, unsolved crimes
Most large cities have a dominant urban legend or a fallback ghost story that just about every long-term resident is familiar with, be they cab drivers or local politicians. Boston diehard don’t have to try too hard: not since 1988, at least. And the story in question needs no supernatural elements of any kind. On 18 March, 1988, two white men in their 30s, pretending to be police officers, robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, having tied up the two night guards in the basement. Astoundingly, the robbers were inside the museum for a staggering 81 minutes, making off with artwork worth over $200 million in total — multiple Rembrandts (including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only seascape ever painted by the 17th-century Dutch master) and a Manet among them. No arrests were ever made, authorities didn’t even get to the point where they charged anybody and the paintings were never recovered.
The stylishly shot four-part Netflix documentary This is a Robbery (released on 7 April) delivers an excellent, 360-degree view of what still remains the greatest art heist of all time. From a blow-by-blow description of the robbery itself, to tracing down key investigators and witnesses — and chasing the most likely perpetrators (that we know of), This is a Robbery is diligent, old-fashioned (especially in its generous usage of actors ‘reconstructing’ key moments) and refreshingly free of bombast.
The first two episodes are mostly focused on the logistics of the robbery itself: how did the thieves know, for instance, that the guard on duty had just the one alarm to contact the outside world? Which is to say, how were they confident that the police wouldn’t turn up—for 81 minutes no less? Because of understandable concerns like this, initially, everybody was grilling Richard Abath, one of the tied-up night guards and also the man who buzzed the robbers into the building (he thought they were police officers).
Abath is a fascinating character. Although he declined to be interviewed for This is a Robbery, there are extensive audio tapes of his interviews with one of the many Boston-based journalists who’ve written extensively about the heist (several Boston Globe journalists are featured, in fact). In his mid-20s in 1988, Abath has been described as “an old-school hippie” and a “reefer-smoking musician type, the kind of hippie who’s good at chess” at various points in This is a Robbery. In the aftermath of the robbery and the subsequent investigation, Abath felt like he could not continue with his job as usual — he expected to be fired, but eventually, quit himself. Equally memorable is Myles Connor Jr., a notorious art thief who was involved in a separate museum robbery that took place less than a year before the Gardner Museum heist.
Connor Jr. was a flamboyant rock and roll musician by night, a Mensa member albeit one with an incurable taste for the criminal lifestyle. The hushed way in which most people in the documentary speak about him and the violence that he unleashed (he was involved in several shootouts with the police) is contrasted gleefully with where the filmmakers find him — a little old man in his seventies, living on a farm with horses who clearly adore him. In its strength of characterization, therefore, This is a Robbery will remind you of Evil Genius (2018), another four-part Netflix docu-series about a heist.
There is another area where This is a Robbery goes above and beyond the brief of a typical true crime show: in its brief but powerful asides on the nature of museums in particular and public-facing art in general. We are shown how the Gardner museum’s engagement with the larger community in Boston was falling off the wagon. Ann Hawley, who had been made director of the museum just six months before the heist (a post she would continue to occupy until 2016), becomes one of the most sympathetic figures in the documentary — she tried her best to make the museum less of an insular space. She negotiated the media blitz after the robbery as best she could, even though the reporters relentlessly asked her questions about the robbery (despite her polite reminders that the FBI had taken over the investigation and those queries ought to be directed at them).
This doesn’t mean that This is a Robbery has no missteps at all. It is far too enamoured with its own ‘intro sequences’, for example. Up until 10 or 15 minutes away from the finish line, we are still being introduced to new characters. Also, the dominant theory about the robberies — namely, that the mafia was involved —doesn’t receive nearly as much scrutiny as it should (an earlier theory involving a Russian oligarch, a ‘Dr No type’, was professionally debunked, in contrast).
On the whole, however, This is a Robbery delivers what it promised in the trailers: a simple, well-told story that does its best to unpack one of America’s most intriguing, unsolved crimes — without challenging viewers beyond a point.