Colin Barnicle on how an art heist obsession became Netflix’s “This is a Robbery”

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, a van pulled up to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Two men impersonating police offers tricked a guard into letting them inside. ...
March 11, 2021

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, a van pulled up to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Two men impersonating police offers tricked a guard into letting them inside. Soon after, the guard and another were handcuffed and tied in the basement.

The two “cops” cut 13 priceless works of art from their frames and loaded them into the van. They were gone in 81 minutes. Among the stolen works were paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer and Manet. Thirty years later, the case remains unsolved, with a $10,000,000 reward. It is the largest art theft in history. But for documentary filmmakers and brothers Colin and Nick Barnicle (pictured, left to right), the art heist is more than a story — it’s practically part of their DNA.

“It was saturated into me,” Colin Barnicle tells Realscreen. “I think a lot of people from the metro Boston area know about it, but they don’t know about it. I thought it was kind of a Thomas Crown Affair type thing.”

In conversation, Barnicle speaks of growing up with dinner table conversations with his mother and father talking about the crime as a local legend. For a child, the notion of an art heist could seem glamorous, like in the movies where debonair thieves rappel down ropes through museum skylights accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack. But by the time the grown-up Barnicle brothers became interested in the real evidence of that infamous night, Barnicle says, “It was not Thomas Crown at all.”

The result of their boyhood fascination with the Isabella Stewart Gardner art theft is This is a Robbery, a four-part docuseries for Netflix that premieres April 7. Directed by Colin, he and Nick are executive producers. Tribeca Film’s Jane Rosenthal and Berry Welsh, as well as Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners also serve as executive producers.

The Barnicle Brothers are known for their sports and concert films including The Deal (part of the ’30 for 30′ series for ESPN) and Billy Joel: New York State of Mind (MSG Network). This new series marks their first foray into true crime, their first Netflix deal and also their first partnership with Rosenthal and Welsh.

The series is structured like a treasure map for the audience to follow along and be sofa sleuths. Getting the story to the screen was in itself a journey, one that had no obvious map. “We had always wanted to do a multi-part story. And then in 2015, we did a lot of research on [the case],” Barnicle explains. “We started to film in early 2016 and made a sizzle reel.”

Rosenthal viewed the trailer and told the brothers that it was good but could be better. They took up the challenge, raised capital and called in a lot of favors to produce a 40-45 minute pilot.

“When I say raising capital, I mean we pretty much bet on ourselves that we could make a pilot that would sell,” he says. “And we made a 45-minute pilot in 2017. We interviewed a dozen subjects, we did some reenactments and then we went back to Jane and she was like, ‘I think we can do something with it.’ And pretty much all of 2018 was trying to get it to the right network, the right platform, and it was almost a full year of just nuts.”

But it paid off with Netflix signing on. Originally, the Barnicles’ concept was for an eight-part series. At the time of the art theft in 1990 there was a number of other events unfolding in Boston, including a high-profile murder that the filmmakers thought would provide historical context, but the streamer felt four episodes was the right number. In the end, Colin and his brother agreed. “[Netflix] were absolutely right. You would get too far away from the robbery, where the viewer starts to think, ‘What am I looking at?’ So, it really made us concentrate kind of on the robbery itself, which was great.”

The biggest challenge in producing This is a Robbery was not the nuts and bolts of production, but the fact that there were no judicial findings on the case. In other true crime shows a filmmaker can see the evidence or petition to see it and make their conclusion. When it came to the world’s biggest art theft? Not so much.

“There’s nothing in terms of this case,” Barnicle explains. “No one was ever arrested. No one was ever brought before a judge. There’s no public judiciary. We were absolutely not confident in being able to get somebody to sit down in front of a camera with studio lights and incriminate themselves. So, the real hurdle was being able to sit down with somebody who didn’t want to talk.”

Barnicle also described going through thousands of pages of court transcripts of people who were tangentially involved in the case. When it came to subjects it was equally daunting, with approximately 75 interviews on camera. In the end only 26 ended up in the final film.

As for the COVID-19 pandemic, his brother Nick, and Colin’s wife, who is a nurse in New York, saw the writing on the wall and began to pivot towards public health procedures. Fortunately, the team finished filming around six days before the pandemic shut the world down.

This is a Robbery is a sprawling, intricate story that involves the Italian and the Irish mob, Boston cops, the FBI, journalists and art experts as well as multiple threads and potential theories. Was it a conspiracy? Where are the paintings now? It’s all there in lurid glory in the final film (see trailer below). The case remains a sensation and for many, an obsession. As for solving this international whodunnit, do the Barnicles know the answer?

Colin Barnicle doesn’t hesitate. “Given the evidence at the crime scene and the people who were there I think we have a good idea of who did it.”

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