In the early hours of March 18, 1990, 13 masterpieces were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Three Rembrandts, a collection of Degas and one of only 36 Vermeers known to exist — gone. In the 29 years since, there hasn’t been a single arrest or credible sighting of any of the stolen works. It is still considered to be the most expensive art heist in history, with the work valued in the billions of dollars today.
In 2018, WBUR and The Boston Globe teamed up to ask: How can that possibly be? And why, three decades later, does this mystery still captivate?
Through a 10-part podcast, on-air reporter conversations, comprehensive websites, video and visual assets, digital community engagement and in-person events, “Last Seen” is an exemplary work of innovative, multimedia journalism. Rich sound design complements in-depth investigation, with “Last Seen” weaving a nuanced, complex story with innovative approaches in audio sound design. With unprecedented access and first-ever interviews, the investigation took a new look at an old story that continues to affect the cultural scene of Boston and the world.
To tell that story, we conceived of a truly fresh and immersive multimedia experience:
The podcast, produced with painstaking narrative sound design, experimented with the true-crime form to make a story about missing art as captivating and as urgent as those about missing people. Told in nine reported episodes and one live episode, the narrative podcast unraveled theories and interrogated why this mystery hasn’t been solved yet.
Through video, we provided our audience with the most comprehensive walk-through of the night’s events created to date, adding greater clarity to the story of how the art was stolen that had only been told in bits and pieces.
On-air, the reporters lifted the veil of their reporting and spoke to listeners on our 90.9-FM about the process of telling this enduring story. The pairing of veteran Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian (who literally wrote the book on the Gardner case) with WBUR reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, who were new to the story, lended both expertise and fresh perspectives to dig deeper than anyone had before.
The WBUR and Globe digital teams built multiple entry paths into the story digitally and provided resource material, like art criticism of each of the missing artworks and deeper dives into each of the podcast’s characters, to further the audience’s understanding of the stakes involved. The Globe’s rich archives and decades of reporting on the story lended deep context and important visual reporting.
The Globe and WBUR collaborated in a Facebook community to discuss new developments in the heist and where members could dissect theories, and hosted a live audience taping of an episode.
We opened up a secure tip line for any and all information from the public about this still unsolved mystery.
Staff of the Boston Globe and WBUR accepted the award for Excellence in Audio Digital Storytelling. (Video by Levar Alonzo, ONA19 Student Newsroom)