Decades after the art world's greatest heist, two of the stolen pieces return home in augmented reality. Via Cuseum

Stolen Classics Returned to Gallery in New AR App

On March 18 in 1990, the largest heist of private property in modern history occurred when two thieves posing as police officers stole 13 classic artworks worth $500 million in from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Despite decades of FBI and international attention, the heist remains one of the art world’s great whodunits and not a single work—including works by Rembrandt, Degas and Vermeer—has ever been recovered.

However, 28 years later, visitors to the Gardner Museum can view two of the pieces restored in their rightful original context through the magic of a new AR app, Hacking the Heist.

Above: Test-driving the app to restore Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black to its long-vacant frame. Via Cuseum app creators

Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, depicting Christ’s fateful voyage and the artist’s only seascape. Via Wikimedia Commons

Created by developers Cuseum who describe themselves as “a group of art-loving Bostonians,” the iOS app was released this month to coincide with the anniversary of the infamous heist. Using Apple’s powerful ARKit developmental tools and growing AR functionalities on today’s smartphones and tablets, Cuseum has managed to do in virtual space what years of investigation have failed to accomplish: returning two lost Rembrandts to their original locations in the museum.

Since the heist, the museum has hung the stolen paintings’ empty frames as a reminder of the theft and a symbol of the museum’s hopes that the works will eventually be returned.

In an interview with artnet News, Cuseum CEO Brendan Ciecko said that the app stemmed initially from his team’s experiments with ARKit development and was developed after they realized that they had a worthy cause to support in their own hometown:

“As we started to work more extensively with Apple’s ARKit and augmented reality, one of my colleagues said ‘wouldn’t be interesting to put the stolen art back in the frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?’, ” adding “When you visit the Gardner today, a lot of people don’t even realize that there was a heist, or don’t know what the artworks that were stolen looked like.”

Currently Hacking the Heist only features Rembrandt’s famous paintings, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” but the developers hope to incorporate most or all of the missing works and partner officially with the Gardner Museum to more fully integrate the app into visitors’ experiences.