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Gardner heist: Journalist Ulrich Boser discusses the history behind the famous theft

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Josh Reynolds/AP

(Read caption) An empty frame which used to contain the painting 'The Concert' by Vermeer hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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Ordinarily, there are just two ways for members of the public to enter the most remarkable small art museum in America for free: Buy a membership or be named Isabella like its founder. (And yes, they require an ID to prove the latter. Don't ask me how I know this.)

But 23 years ago this week, two visitors made their way into the museum without a ticket, a pass or the proper first name. Over 81 minutes, a pair of men ripped paintings out of frames and tore a gaping hole into Boston's heart.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has recovered from the shock of the massive theft that robbed it of an estimated $500 million worth of artwork, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. As I discovered during a visit on St. Patrick's Day this week, the museum in an Italian-style villa remains an intimate wonderland of paintings, tapestries, drawings and more – antique chairs, ancient knickknacks, a medieval knight's tomb and even a deliciously naughty Greek sarcophagus.

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