“Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth.”—Isabella Gardner, founder of Boston’s Gardner Museum.
In February 2017, Joe Gibbons sat in a Greenwich Village restaurant and calmly confessed to a role in the largest art heist in American history.
Gibbons, a filmmaker and former MIT lecturer now in his mid-sixties—back in circulation after pleading guilty in 2014 to a Manhattan bank robbery and spending a year in jail—had already confessed and would soon be charged with another bank robbery, this one in Providence, Rhode Island.
He was sitting with a Pulitzer-winning journalist, Stephen Kurkjian, and a novelist, Charles Pinning, both of whom had traveled from New England and knocked on his door that afternoon. Their visit came weeks after an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts had called Gibbons’ lawyer to inquire about his possible involvement in the Isabella Gardner Museum heist.
In March of 1990, a security guard at the Boston museum let in two thieves dressed as police officers who proceeded to steal $500 million worth of art, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. The guard, who now lives in Vermont, was never charged and has long denied any involvement in the heist.
Twenty-seven years later, Gibbons, chasing a morning’s worth of Jameson down with a Kir Royal, was toasted—“well lubricated,” he calls it—and ready to confess.
Soon after midnight on the morning following St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, Gibbons told his audience of two, he was at the Gardner Museum, to score a dime-dag from a security guard there he’d bought from before.
The guard told him to walk with him into the closed museum’s Blue Room with the promise of a dime bag, he said. There, several masterpieces were spread across the floor.
“I don’t know how to get them out of the frames,” he says the security guard told him. He stomped on Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the artist’s only known seascape.
“That’s not the way to do it!” Gibbons yelled.
The guard threw another piece of art on the floor, a Rembrandt sketch. “Do you want this one? Do you want this one?” he teased.
Gibbons rejected the offer, he said, in part because he “wasn’t a big fan of Rembrandt” but helped the guard pull off the caper.
“I showed how you could remove the backings of the paintings and take the canvases out.”
His wife walked into the restaurant, and cut the interview short, not wanting her husband’s name attached to still another crime even as he faces possible jail time for the Providence robbery. So Gibbons wrapped it up, saying that he’d run out of the museum with a dime bag and without any of the paintings.
Still, he had confessed, before two writers to his role in the white whale of a crime that’s filled decades of newspaper column inches, TV-news airtime and the pages of non-fiction books with speculation about who done it.
Asked about his involvement with Gibbons, Kurkjian told me in July that “I’m no longer working with him and have asked that he not associate me with the reporting any longer.” Pinning refused comment.
But what to make of the confession of a criminal and artist who’s dedicated both careers to his “autobiographical fiction” propagating the myth of Joe Gibbons, artist, filmmaker and self-alleged criminal mastermind?
Gibbons began to cultivate that myth in Oakland, 1977. Then in his early twenties, he moved to the Bay Area after attending Antioch College in Ohio. He was welcomed into the art scene and began making films. He also kickstarted his career as a petty criminal.
The intersection of his two careers garnered press attention when Gibbons—well-lubricated at the time—grabbed a painting off the wall of the Oakland Museum during an opening party for artist Richard Diebenkorn.
Gibbons shoved the painting beneath his coat, and waltzed past hundreds of party guests and the museum’s security. The police tracked him down, but rather than go quietly, he seized the opportunity.
He was a member of a renegade group of six artists called the “Art Liberation Front,” Gibbons claimed. The Front had a manifesto, dreamt up by Gibbons: They were critical of the arbitrary value placed on a piece of art—but they were also publicity hungry.
“We’re inveterate opportunists,” Gibbons told the Berkeley Barb after the theft. “Our philosophy is full of contradictions. It had nothing to do with Diebenkorn—it was about museums in general. We saw the opportunity for some publicity and we grabbed it.
“Basically we’re creating meta-art, which is art about art,” he told the paper. “We are whimsically critical of the art establishment as well as the art-critic contingent, who view art solely in terms of its commodity function—its exchange value versus its use value.”
By their logic, the frame was the only piece of a painting that had any actual value. Before the police caught up with him, The Front agreed they would return the painting, but keep the frame hostage. One of their ransom demands, the group told the Barb, was for the Oakland Museum to hold an exhibition with nothing but frames.
That crime, which Gibbons unquestionably committed, might draw someone to believe he could’ve somehow been involved in the famous Gardner Museum heist. Beyond the obvious art-crime connection, there are the frames. On that early March morning in 1990, the Gardner Museum thieves cut the paintings out and left the frames—which still hang there, with nothing in them.
I first connected with Gibbons through a Facebook message this summer. I’d seen a news alert about a bank robbery in downtown Manhattan, and Gibbons, who I’d covered as a reporter, popped into my head. I messaged him, hoping to find out how he’d adjusted after jail. When we met Washington Square Park on a recent afternoon, he recounted the story of the two writers who knocked on his door in February, and produced a recording of his confession.
“It’s an old myth the artist has to have experiences, which he can then use for his material,” Gibbons told me between sips from a can of bubbly wine. His gray hair was unkempt and long on the sides. He has few teeth left in his mouth.
“When I was a teenager, I thought I was innocent and protected, my upbringing,” he said. “I needed to really get dirty. Get my hands dirty.”
In his films, Gibbons’ combined his dry wit and intellect with transgressive material.
“He was always flirting with a certain amount of criminality. It was always one of his subjects,” said noted film critic Jim Hoberman, who was one of the first journalists to write about Gibbons’ work. “He was already notorious for having stolen that painting” from the Oakland Museum.
Gibbons’ contemporaries in late 1970s and early 1980s in New York were creating overtly sexual films in a trumped-up John Waters’ style, Hoberman said.
Gibbons, on the other hand, was also exploring taboo subjects, but with wit and nuance. “He was transgressive in a way that was much more interesting to me,” Hoberman said. “His films were just much more interesting, conceptually and visually. I was very supportive of them. I thought he was doing something new.”
In his 1978 film, Spying, for example, Gibbons secretly recorded his neighbors in San Francisco as they sunbathed, gardened, kissed one another, and did other routine tasks.
The film flirted with the taboo of voyeurism, but also commented on American daily life.
When it was screened by the film society of Lincoln Center in 2012, they published critiques of the film by Hoberman and filmmakers who knew Gibbons’ work.
“It’s an aggressive film in its Rear Window quality,” wrote artist Peggy Ahwesh, “but also a film that exposes the pathos of a loner as he gazes on to the lives of others who are active, have relationships, lovers, pets and manage to accomplish the small tasks of daily life. Spying is the ultimate home movie.”
Away from the camera, Gibbons continued to find new material in his own criminality.
After the Oakland Museum theft, Gibbons began stealing books at shops along Telegraph Avenue near the University of Berkeley’s campus, in part to pay for lawyer fees, he said. He would also steal champagne, his drink of choice.
The book thefts were a clever scam, Gibbons said. He would take an academic book from a shop and immediately flip it at another store, sometimes for a several-hundred dollar payout.
He went on to plead guilty in 1979 to a felony for stealing the Diebenkorn painting, and was offered a deal to complete a drug-treatment program in lieu of a prison sentence.
“The court gave me the opportunity of spending a year in a therapeutic community, or a year in Santa Rita jail,” he said.
Gibbons, raised in Providence, moved back to the East Coast and entered the McLean Psychiatric Hospital. When he completed the program in 1980, he spent a short time in a New York City halfway house and reverted back to his petty crimes, he said.
“The triggers were still there. I immediately went back to stealing books,” he said. “I was, as I say, conducting research, having experiences I could later distill into art.”
After five months in New York, Gibbons moved to Boston, where his avant-garde film career flourished as he made films based on his actual experiences, conflated for effect. “I used the circumstances that I found myself in as a base for fiction,” he said.
As he racked up parking tickets in Boston and in Rhode Island in the 1980s, his film A Fugitive in Paris opens with him jumping out of a window, running from the Boston Police after him because of them.
The film also goes on to explore another crime Gibbons had yet to commit at that point in his life: bank robbery.
His work in this period would be shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and received a range of praise and criticism from critics.
His most acclaimed work, Confessions of a Sociopath, was released in 2001. It includes a number of old recordings, shot at various points in Gibbons’ life, that show him appearing to break the law in different ways. In one scene he shoots heroin; in another he steals a book.
Gibbons earned the Guggenheim Fellowship soon after the film was released and started the most stable job he ever held: a lecturing position at MIT.
“I had ruled out teaching, but I’d gotten an MFA because the only way I could finish my film, The Genius was by getting a staffer’s loan,” he said.
He would spend nearly a decade in the lecturing role in MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology program, but was forced to leave in 2010 because he didn’t earn tenure.
“I would’ve liked to continue there,” he said. “Nine years is the limit for a not-tenured.”
Gibbons returned to producing avant-garde films full time after he left MIT, but struggled to achieve the same success he had earlier in his career.
In November 2014, Gibbons walked into a Providence bank, stood in line, passed the teller a robbery note and walked away with almost $3,000, he said.
“I could just go in and stand in line. That’s what allowed me to follow through with it,” he recounted. “So I went through with it and it worked out as I imagined it.”
Gibbons’ fascination with crime was part of his motive, he said.
“Bank robbery was something that always had a mystique that represented to me the pinnacle of criminal achievement,” he said. “It sort’ve represented an achievement because it’s sort of the opposite of the way I was raised.”
After the Providence bank robbery, Gibbons traveled to New York, where he says he stayed in budget hotels in downtown Manhattan and drank heavily.
Weeks later, he was again out of money and options, he said.
“I ran out of people I could ask for money. I had to leave the place I was staying because either I couldn’t afford it or I wasn’t welcome there anymore,” he said. “What would be more stressful? Going to the men’s shelter at Bellevue or robbing a bank?”
He answered his own question by walking into a bank in Manhattan’s Chinatown on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve day 2014, standing in line before passing the teller a note demanding cash. Another customer happened to walk up to the counter at the same time and distracted the bank attendant. To refocus the attendant’s attention, Gibbons lifted his hands onto the counter and revealed a small video camera recording his heist, in which he walked off with $1,002.
After he was arrested days later, Gibbons told the NYPD he’d committed the Manhattan bank robbery, and also the one he’s now charged with in Providence. He pleaded guilty in the New York case in July 2015, and was sentenced to a year in jail with credit for the six months he had already served.
When Gibbons walked out of Rikers Island in September of 2015, he hoped he was due for a big promotion in his entwined film and petty crime careers.
His arrest had made a splash in the press after the New York tabloids first reported the crime. The story would go on to be covered in The New York Times, People magazine, and in an exhaustive Boston magazine profile. A documentary film crew even wanted to capture his post-incarceration life through their lens.
The myth of Joe Gibbons was growing again.
He earned a new nickname in jail—Joey Banks—that’s now the greeting on his cellphone voicemail. He’s identified himself as a “bank robber/insurgent artist” on LinkedIn.
Maybe he could write a book. Or make a movie out of this.
But catch up with Gibbons today and he doesn’t seem like an artist poised to make a comeback.
Since his release, he’s married Deb Meehan, also a filmmaker who currently teaches at Pratt University and who he’s known for decades. There’s visible friction between them, as she works to get him sober and keep him out of jail, and he drinks, confesses to crimes, and recounts his criminal past to reporters.
Gibbons was charged in the Providence robbery in July, pleaded not guilty, and posted a $50,000 bond, a Rhode Island court spokesperson said.
He shares a Greenwich Village apartment with Meehan, not far from a liquor depot where he buys boxed and canned wine. He carried a tote bag to fill on a recent afternoon trip to the store, and paid for the wine with what he said was his wife’s credit card, instead of pocketing it like he might’ve done years ago.
Even drunk and down on his luck, he transitions seamlessly in conversation from tales of his bank robberies to critiques of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
And he still flirts with crime as material.
“I’m just out and about, practicing my trade,” he said in a recent email, attaching a photo of himself inside a Chase bank, holding up a deposit slip. “Robbery—large bills only,” was scribbled on it.
He signed the email: “Joey Banks.”
But drunk or sober, Gibbons’ eyes light up when he talks about the Gardner Museum. Like the writers who sat with him in February, he saw opportunity in his possible involvement in the famous heist. Not for cutting a deal with the U.S. attorney for a reduced sentence in his Providence bank-robbing case. Not for finally solving the decades-old mystery. But for an autobiographical fiction film. For rekindling the myth of Joe Gibbons.
“It was just better than gold,” he said, recounting his February confession.
Gibbons took a trip to the Gardner Museum with his wife after the interview, and playfully posed in front of the frame of the missing Rembrandt. His lawyer later told him he has a “dangerous sense of play,” Gibbons said. “I asked him if he knew someone looking for a Vermeer at cut-rate prices.
“I would like to reconstruct it,” Gibbons said of the heist. “I would re-enact it with the police uniforms. I don’t know how far I could carry it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Gibbons donned a police uniform for one of his films. In a scene from Confessions of a Sociopath, a camera pans up to reveal a mustachioed Gibbons in full police regalia.
In a sketch released by police after the Gardner heist, one of the suspects sports a similar mustache and look.
Think about his criminal past, his films, his art theft, and an audience might see Gibbons in that sketch. They might believe for a second he could’ve been there, perhaps even with a video camera in hand, the night $500 million of art vanished.
That’s exactly what he would want.