After two decades of tips, leads, hunches, forensic tests, psychic visions, and jailhouse confessions, the biggest art heist in history is still unsolved.
At 1:24 A.M.on March 18, 1990, two men wearing police uniforms walked up to a side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
One of the men pressed the buzzer near the door. “Police! Let us in,” he said. “We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” They were buzzed in.
Inside the four-story building were two guards. One was behind the main security desk, which had four video monitors. “You look familiar,” one of the intruders said to the guard. “I think we have a default warrant out for you.”
The guard was tricked into stepping out from behind his desk, where he had access to the only alarm button in the museum that would alert the police. He was ordered to stand facing a wall and was handcuffed. When the second guard arrived and was also put in handcuffs, he said to the intruders, “Why are you arresting me?”
“You’re not being arrested,” was the reply. “This is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.”
“Don’t worry,” one of the guards said. “They don’t pay me enough to get hurt.” The thieves wrapped duct tape around the guards’ hands, feet, and heads, leaving nose holes for breathing, took them to the museum’s basement, and handcuffed them to pipes.
Then the thieves went upstairs. As one of them approached a Rembrandt painting in the Dutch Room, an alarm sounded. They immediately smashed it.
They pulled Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629) off the wall and tried unsuccessfully to take the wooden panel out of the heavy frame. They left it on the floor. Next they cut Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) out of the frame and cut out A Lady and Gentleman in Black(1633), which the museum says is a Rembrandt but some scholars, including the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, say is not. (“We continue to think it’s a Rembrandt,” Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley said.)
They removed Vermeer’s The Concert (1658-60) from its frame and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638), which at one time was attributed to Rembrandt. They took a Rembrandt etching and a Chinese bronze beaker from the Shang dynasty (1200-1100 B.C.). Empty frames now hang where the paintings used to be in the Dutch Room.
Elsewhere in the museum, not far from a portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, they removed five Degas drawings, a Manet oil, Chez Tortoni(1878-80), and a finial in the form of an eagle. To get to the finial, they passed two Raphaels and a Botticelli.
The thieves had to make two trips to their car with the loot. They were not unconcerned about the guards. “Are you comfortable?” one of the thieves asked. “Handcuffs too tight?” The guards couldn’t reply since their mouths were still taped. The theft lasted 81 minutes.
The guards remained tied and handcuffed until the police arrived at 8:15 that morning. The guard who had allowed the thieves into the building said that to pass the time he started humming a favorite Bob Dylan tune, “I Shall be Released.” The opening stanza includes the lines: “So I remember every face / Of every man who put me here.” The guard did remember the two faces and described them to the police.
“It’s difficult to understand why the thieves took what they did, an eclectic collection,” Geoffrey J. Kelly, the FBI agent who has been assigned to the Gardner case for the past eight years, told me in a telephone interview. “They were certainly in the museum long enough to take whatever they wanted. They treated the guards well. That’s professional.”
More than 19 years after the largest art theft in history—the works are now valued at between $500 million and $600 million—no one has been arrested, as ARTnewswent to press. There have been no demands for ransom. None of the works has been recovered, even though the museum offers a $5 million reward and says that it “ensures complete confidentiality” for information leading to their return.
And despite thousands of tips and the efforts of the FBI, the United States attorney for Massachusetts, the Gardner’s director of security, the Boston police, and some of the world’s top private investigators, as well as a coded message the museum sent to an anonymous tipster through the financial pages of the Boston Globe, whose reporter Stephen Kurkjian said he had the first interview with one of the guards, none of the authorities knows for sure where the works are or who stole them.
“I don’t know if we can definitely say that we don’t know,” Anthony Amore, who has been director of the Gardner’s security for nearly four years, told me. “When I came to the museum I went through files and created a computerized database. It now contains 10,000 bits of information—all the tips, all the leads, all the suspects. It’s not 100 percent sure that no one ever gave us the right tip. It could be we’ve gotten bits of information from different people that if properly analyzed could hold some answers for us.”
Hawley said that paint chips from the missing canvases had been found on the floor after the theft. They were collected in vials and analyzed by conservators at several museums.
Amore has retraced the steps the thieves took. He has studied the history of every work that was stolen. “Through the museum’s motion detector equipment I’ve been able to see all their steps,” he said. “I’ve looked at them every way imaginable. One interesting part of the 81 minutes that they were in the museum is that only half was spent stealing works. The other half I don’t know. While one guy was stealing the Vermeer, another was in another gallery taking the Degas and the finial. Why Degas? I don’t know. Maybe he enjoyed equestrian art or liked to go to the track.”
Some of the unanswered questions:
Why were the thieves so comfortable that they could stay in the museum for 81 minutes knowing that no other alarm would be triggered?
Why didn’t they go to the third floor and take Titian’s Rape of Europa, which Peter Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a distinguished scholar, calls “arguably the greatest painting in America”?
Why did the thieves steal mainly Dutch and French works?
Was the theft arranged by the Irish Republican Army to raise money or bargain for the release of jailed comrades? Are the paintings now in Ireland, as some private investigators believe?
Do the thieves still have the works or did they pass them on to others?
The FBI says only 5 percent of stolen art is ever returned. Others believe the figure to be as high as 20 percent.
Among those questioned by the bureau: American drug lords, ex-museum guards, and Japanese underworld figures. An FBI agent flew with a colleague to Paris to discuss with French prosecutors a tip that a discredited French tycoon had bought the Rembrandts. The FBI reportedly put an undercover informant in the jail cell of a suspect in the theft. But the suspect didn’t cooperate.
A prison inmate said that some of the paintings were shipped via Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Genoa, Italy, and then to a dealer in France. A man said the art was in a pueblo somewhere in South America. One caller suggested the Vermeer was in a mobile home moving around the country.
“I have received information from psychics as to where the paintings are,” said Kelly. “People have said they have had visions pinpointing where the paintings are. One man said he had invented electronic equipment and had built it and that it could locate the paintings. It did not lead anywhere.”
He added: “I have to walk a fine line between being open-minded and not wasting my time.”
“One bizarre theory,” Amore said, “was from people who say Mrs. Gardner speaks to them and tells them who stole the paintings. Also, others say mythical figures have spoken to them about the thefts.”
The best and most complete story of the theft and its investigation is a new book, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theftby Ulrich Boser (Smithsonian/Collins, 260 pages, $25.99). He is a skillful investigative reporter who became so passionate about the case that it led him, he writes, to “stake out suspects, convene secret meetings with felons and fly thousands of miles to interview stolen-art fences who swore they could return the missing masterpieces. My life would be threatened more than once.”
A few museumgoers have been “so devastated that they can no longer visit the Gardner,” according to Boser. “They view the tragedy as an unholy tragedy, a monstrous corruption of beauty, and they refuse to even set foot in the building.” The empty frames were later placed back on the walls.
One woman came to the museum a few weeks after the theft with a bouquet of yellow tulips. She presented the flowers to an employee and said, “Yellow is for hope.”
John Updike wrote a poem entitled “Stolen” that appeared in the New Yorkerin 2003 on how it would feel to be the stolen paintings. Part of it reads:
Think of how bored they get, stacked in the warehouse somewhere, say in Mattapan, gazing at the back of the butcher paper they are wrapped in, instead of at the rapt glad faces of those who love art. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . In their captivity, they may dream of rescue but cannot cry for help. Their paint is inert and crackled, their linen friable. They have one stratagem, the same old one: to be themselves, on and on.
On the anniversaries of the robbery the Gardner has frequently issued press releases restating its commitment to the $5 million reward and urging “the individual or individuals holding the stolen artworks to protect them. The artworks should be kept in optimal conditions that do not allow for swings in temperature and humidity, ideally at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity.”
The museum has asked that anyone with information about the theft contact Amore at 617-278-5114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The important thing is to get the paintings back, whether the information goes to the museum or the FBI,” Kelly said.
An FBI spokesperson said, “The statute of limitations has run out, but it’s illegal to possess stolen paintings.” Michael Sullivan, the United States attorney for Massachusetts, said regarding the theft: “We will review the option of immunity on a case-by-case basis.”
The works were not insured. “Mrs. Gardner didn’t want new works added to the collection,” Hawley said. “The trustees at the time of the theft decided that if there were a theft, they wouldn’t replace the works. That was their reasoning at the time. The works are insured now.”
Some years ago, an antiques dealer facing criminal charges for a firearms violation said he could mediate the return of the paintings if authorities dropped the charges, gave him the $5 million reward, and freed a friend in prison. Tom Mashberg, a reporter for the Boston Herald, investigated and was shown a painting that appeared to be The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The dealer gave the FBI a vial of paint chips he said came from the picture, but tests showed they were not from the stolen Rembrandt.
In a recent series of articles in the Boston Herald, Mashberg and Laura Crimaldi reported that George Reissfelder, who had been thought to be a suspect in the theft, had had the Manet shortly before he died in 1991.
Reissfelder’s younger brother, Richard, a retired National Guard military policeman, was quoted as saying that “I know I saw it in his possession” but that the painting was gone when he went to his brother’s apartment after he died. Amore had contacted Richard Reissfelder last year.
Boser writes that Dick Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques squad, and now a private investigator, explained to him that the stolen works appeared to have been collateralized and that a number of different groups now had a financial interest in the art. “Ellis has seen this happen in dozens of other cases,” Boser writes. “A thief will steal an artwork and then use it as a type of underworld cash, trading the painting for a stash of handguns or kilos of cocaine.”
Boser is convinced that one of the men who looted the museum was David Turner, a Boston gangster now serving a 38-year term for armed robbery. “It’s one of many theories we’ve known about,” Amore told me.
I mentioned the Ellis comment to Charley Hill, a former top member of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques squad and now a private investigator.
“What Dick says is speculation,” Hill said. “My theory is that the works are probably under the control of one person or a small group and they don’t know what to do with them. They’re simply biding their time.”
He added: “Nothing would have happened at the Gardner without Whitey Bulger having a hand in the crime somewhere. It’s as simple as that.”
However, a source close to the investigation disagreed. “There’s not a shred of evidence that Bulger was involved,” he said. “Also, there is no evidence that the Irish Republican Army is involved, although they were involved in a Vermeer theft many years ago.”
Although Boser lapses a bit too often into using such words as swiped, snatched, filched, pilfered, and pocketed and makes a few factual errors, he digs deeply and tells his story convincingly. It’s a pleasurable read.
When Boser asked Hawley if she thought that the paintings would ever be returned, she replied: “I live in hope. I dwell in possibility, as Emily Dickinson says. I just have to believe that the stolen paintings are still out there.”
Amore made a request to me. “Please pass this on,” he said. “I want people to understand that there’s no such thing as an insignificant tip. If you feel it should be passed on, please pass it on.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews. Additional research by Amanda Lynn Granek.