Published Date: 19 March 2009
Published Date: 19 March 2009
By Mike Dwane
A new book alleges that a gang of city criminals are using stolen masterworks as security for dirty deals and its author was told he'd pay with his life if he came to Limerick
THE American author of a best-selling account of the biggest art heist in history has described being told a notorious gang of Limerick criminals had a share in the priceless Rembrandts and Degas, which they were using as security in drug and weapons deals.
In "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft", journalist Ulrich Boser investigates the $500 million theft of the artworks from a Boston museum in 1990 and follows the trail to Shannon Airport.
One lead in the mystery is that the paintings were shipped to Ireland by James 'Whitey' Bulger, the Boston-based Irish-American mobster on whom Jack Nicholson's character in Martin Scorcese's Hollywood blockbuster "The Departed" is partly based.
Bulger shipped arms to the IRA in the 1980s and some investigators believe that the artworks were also sent across the pond to help the Republican cause. The Gardner Heist describes how the haul may then have fallen into the hands of a nexus of Irish republicans and criminals who Mr Boser is told are "the type that would go to Baghdad on holiday" and he is warned that if he does go to Limerick in search of the art, he will pay for it with his life.
After years of researching the mystery, Mr Boser said all the evidence points to a Boston criminal as being the mastermind but the author told the Limerick Leader this week that "there are a number of well-respected art detectives who are convinced that the paintings could be held by criminals somewhere in the west of Ireland". Investigators, he said, had been probing the "Irish connection" to the theft since day one.
St Patrick's Day celebrations were in full swing in Boston in the early hours of March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as police officers blagged their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and tied up the security guards. A witness heard one thief address the other as 'mate', pointing to a possible Irish connection. They made off with five Degas, three Rembrandts, including his only seascape, and a Vermeer.
"But as well as these paintings, they also took a number of low value portraits of horses, which were relatively worthless but apparently highly prized by Irish criminals," Mr Boser said.
Travelling to London in search of the art, Mr Boser is told by a reformed art crook that a vicious gang of Limerick criminals have acquired an interest in the artwork, which they are using as a black market bond or security for drug and weapons deals. The book also recounts a dinner interview between Boser and two internationally-respected art detectives, Dick Ellis and Maurice Dalrymple, who make clear their belief that the paintings could be in Ireland.
But Boser is warned he could be killed if he travels to Limerick to look for the paintings.
"Ireland is not a place to go gallivanting about. It is still a big village, and in some places, everyone is on the take. You hire a car to go to Limerick and they'll know that you've hired the car and why you're there before you've even at the foot of the driveway," Dalrymple tells Boser.
"I mean really, why don't you just go up to Ireland and see if you can find the paintings? Go to a bar in Limerick and just ask for them. The best thing that can happen is they just ignore you. Or you might get murdered," the detective says, adding that this might not be a bad idea.
"I don't think they really wanted to see me dead," Boser told the Limerick Leader this week, "it's just they may have run out of patience with the persistent questioning you get from a journalist over a two-hour meeting. But Maurice Dalrymple, who I respect an awful lot, did challenge me that if I wanted to see the paintings, I should just walk into a seedy bar down a back street in Limerick and start asking about stolen paintings in a broad American accent and see how far I got. I could see his point."
In the end, the author does decide to travel to Ireland not to probe the Limerick link but to search for Whitey Bulger, who has allegedly been spotted in Galway Bay posing as a retired doctor.
Arriving in Shannon on a low cost flight with a planeload of drunks singing "The Wild Rover", Boser's account of his 48-hour stay is unlikely to be reproduced in any Tourism Ireland or Shannon Development brochures.
He spends two days wandering around coastal resorts in Clare and Galway on the lookout for Whitey Bulger, hassling poor pensioners in Doolin trying to make out if they are the world's most wanted man after Osama bin Laden.
But looking out into the gloomy Atlantic in the "seaside hamlet" of Lahinch, Boser realises he will never find his Whitey Whale and heads back to Shannon Airport.
The Gardner Heist concludes that a Boston criminal was behind the theft. And huge rewards, such as that offered by the museum founders in this case, mean a multiplicity of theories can be brought forward, some completely off the wall. But despite this, the Gardner heist remains unsolved and the Limerick link is still a distinct possibility, Boser said.
Described by the Guardian as "a thrill", "The Gardner Heist" moves effortlessly from the underworld to the world of high art and comments on the growing black market for art worldwide. It is published by Harper Collins and is available in all good bookshops.
Art Hostage Comments:
Maurice Dalrymple, Maurice Dalrymple, please !!!!
The names Mark Dalrymple, who finds it difficult to lay straight in bed !!!
Once Art Hostage has read the Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser a review will follow.