Twenty-five years ago at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, two men posing as police officers tricked Rick Abath — the night watchman — into letting them in.
“At the time of the robbery I had just dropped out of Berklee College of Music. I was playing in a band, and working night shift at the museum,” Abath said during a recent visit to StoryCorps with his wife, Diana. “I was just this hippie guy who wasn’t hurting anything, wasn’t on anybody’s radar and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”
The two men ended up stealing 13 objects worth half a billion dollars, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and a bunch of sketches by Degas. They have never been caught, nor has the art ever been recovered.
“You know, most of the guards were either older or they were college students,” 48-year-old Abath continued. “Nobody there was capable of dealing with actual criminals. But that night two cops rang the doorbell. They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in. They said, ‘Are you here alone?’ And I said ‘I have a partner that’s out on a round.’ They said, ‘call him down.’ And they said, ‘Gentlemen this is a robbery.’ ”
The thieves duct taped around Abath and his partner’s eyes, and duct taped the bottom of his chin to the top of his head.
“And they handcuffed me to the electrical box for seven hours,” he explained. “At first I was panicking, and then I started singing ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Bob Dylan. I don’t know how long I was singing that damn song for, but it was quite some time.”
The thieves cut two of the Rembrandts out of the frames.
“So even if they get the paintings back they’ll never be the same, and I feel horrible about that,” he said.
And he’s still angry about it.
“I don’t want to be remembered for this alone,” Abath said. “I’d like to be remembered for the good things I’ve done. I’m a husband, a father of two really cool kids. But they’re saying it’s half a billion worth of artwork. And ultimately I’m the one who made the decision to buzz them in. It’s the kind of thing most people don’t have to learn to cope with. It’s like doing penance. It’s always there.”
Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.