Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stolen Art Watch, Gardner Heist, All Aboard, Ready To Go !!!

Reward, return now focus of case

Twenty years ago Thursday, the biggest art heist in history occurred at the Stewart Gardner Museum along the Fenway. Since then, the leads have been tantalizing and plentiful, but have unswervingly led to a dead end.

For years convicted art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. boasted that he knew who committed the brazen art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and could help recover the masterpieces.

Last summer, federal prosecutors decided to find out if he actually knew anything.

They gave Connor and a longtime friend, Edward J. Libby, letters of immunity that promised to shield them from criminal charges if they helped recover the 13 stolen paintings and artwork, according to Connor, Libby, and Robert A. George, a Boston criminal defense lawyer who engineered the agreement.

All three hoped to share a $5 million reward offered by the Gardner museum for information leading to the safe return of the artwork, which is valued at $500 million and includes three works by Rembrandt — including his only seascape — and a Vermeer.

But once again Connor came up empty-handed.

“The main lead we have has not come through,’’ Connor, 67, said in an interview Thursday outside his ranch house in Blackstone, a pet turkey standing at his feet.

So it has always gone with the effort to recover the Gardner treasures. Twenty years ago this Thursday, the biggest art heist in history occurred at the Italianate museum along the Fenway. Since then, the leads have been tantalizing and plentiful, but have unswervingly led to a dead end.

Since two men dressed as Boston police officers talked their way into the museum in the early morning of March 18, 1990, bound two security guards, and made off with the artwork, the FBI and museum officials have heard from psychics and people with divining rods, spoken to mobsters and art collectors, searched houses from New England to Europe, and recently submitted evidence for DNA testing.

Yet, the identity of the thieves and the whereabouts of the stolen treasures remain a mystery.

Federal authorities and museum officials say they worry that someone who knows the location of the missing artwork has kept silent out of fear of prosecution or reprisals from those involved in the heist.

As a result, law enforcement authorities who ordinarily vow to catch and punish wrongdoers have adopted the unusual position of trying to woo anyone who knows where the artwork is stashed, with promises of immunity and riches.

“There is an opportunity for someone to return the paintings, become a multimillionaire, and remain confidential,’’ said FBI special agent Geoffrey J. Kelly, who has been leading the Gardner investigation for eight years.

The return of the artwork, he said, can be negotiated through federal authorities, the museum, the media, even a clergy member. And the FBI and museum officials have promised they will protect the identity of anyone who comes forward.

“The important thing is they are recovered,’’ Kelly said of the treasures.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz acknowledged it’s too late to prosecute anyone for stealing the artworks because the statute of limitations lapsed years ago. But individuals caught deliberately hiding the paintings could face federal charges for possessing stolen art objects or for obstruction of justice.

“Immunity is on the table,’’ said Ortiz, and her office will negotiate so that someone can return the paintings without being prosecuted.

Another potential reason the artworks have not surfaced, authorities said, could be that the thief who stashed the masterpieces has died without telling anyone of their whereabouts.

That prospect has prompted authorities to make about a dozen searches over the past decade of houses where deceased suspects once lived in the hopes of finding treasures stashed in a dusty attic, crawlspace, or in a secret hiding place.

“We’ve gotten some strange looks when we knock on someone’s door and say, ‘Can we search your home for the world’s most valuable artwork?,’ ’’ said Kelly, who personally combed through houses from Dedham to Bangor, Maine.

While the hunt for the artwork is international and has led investigators to places ranging from France to Japan, Kelly said he suspects the thieves were local criminals and the artwork remains in New England.

Boston was recovering from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations when two men posing as police officers banged on the museum’s Palace Road entrance at 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, saying they had a report of a disturbance. One of two young guards on duty buzzed them in.

The thieves subdued the guards, bound them with duct tape and handcuffs in the basement, and spent 81 minutes in the museum, pilfering some of its most valuable works.

They slashed two Rembrandts from their frames — “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black’’ — leaving a dusting of chips on the floor.

They pulled “The Concert,’’ one of 36 Vermeers in the world, from its frame, along with Flinck’s “Landscape With an Obelisk,’’ Manet’s “Chez Tortoni,’’ a postage stamp-size self-portrait by Rembrandt, and five sketches by Degas. They also stole the gilded eagle finial from atop a Napoleonic flag and a bronze Chinese beaker.

“There was no great genius behind this case,’’ said Anthony Amore, director of security for the Gardner for the past 4 1/2 years and a former employee of the Department of Homeland Security. “They put on costumes, a guy rang the buzzer, and it was all over.’’

Since he arrived at the Gardner, Amore has created a massive database of leads and potential suspects. He said he devotes about 60 hours a week to the investigation.

“Everyone is a suspect,’’ said Amore, who has worked closely with the FBI and prosecutors.

The list of possible suspects has included low-level hoodlums; assorted con men and art thieves; Irish Republican Army gunrunners; a California screenwriter; and some of Boston’s most notorious organized crime figures. Investigators said they don’t rule out the possibility that the culprits had help from a current or former museum employee and that studies show that 87 percent of museum robberies worldwide have been inside jobs.

Despite media speculation that fugitive gangster James “Whitey’’ Bulger may have been involved, the FBI said it has not linked him to the heist.

One of Bulger’s closest former associates, Kevin J. Weeks, said in a telephone interview last week that Bulger and his longtime sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, were not involved in the theft but made their own unsuccessful search for the artwork.

“He was trying to find out who did do it,’’ said Weeks, adding that Bulger told him he wanted the paintings to use in the future as a “get out of jail free card.’’

Few names have come up more often in connection with the break-in than Myles Connor, in no small part because of his public boasts that it was his idea.

Connor, who stole a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1975 and later cut a deal to return it, was in an Illinois jail when the Gardner paintings were swiped. But he has long said that former criminal associates staged the robbery years after Connor and one of them toured the museum and discussed stealing its artwork.

Last summer, Connor indicated he could broker the return of the Gardner paintings and obtained letters of immunity from the US attorney’s office for himself and Libby, who described himself as a retired businessman in the fishing industry. Libby has a house on Cape Cod and lives outside Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But Connor hasn’t come up with anything and says he plans to travel to Israel within a month because he thinks the artwork may be there. He declined to specify why.

Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly, who is working with the FBI and Amore on the Gardner investigation, said prosecutors gave Connor an immunity letter because he repeatedly said he knew where the paintings were.

“He’s had his chances to lead us to the paintings, but nothing has come of it,’’ he said.

It is hard to imagine, Amore said, why someone with knowledge of the paintings wouldn’t come forward, given the $5 million reward.

He promised that the reward “is for real’’ and the museum would even pay a portion of it if someone returned only some of the pieces.

The only people ineligible for the reward, he said, are the thieves because “I think that’s where the line is drawn between reward and ransom.’’

Kelly, the FBI agent, said that even though the paintings are priceless, they are impossible to sell on the black market and always will be.

“These paintings are never going to not be hot,’’ Kelly said. “They’re always going to be the famous Gardner museum paintings.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at

Gardner heist sleuths: Immunity for the art!
20th anniversary leads to publicity surge

Tom Mashberg
Nearly 20 years after the enigmatic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, key investigators are redoubling efforts to publicize an offer of full and unconditional immunity to anyone who helps locate or return 13 stolen items valued at a half-billion dollars.

The investigators have made recovering the goods a far greater priority than identifying the elusive twosome who broke in and removed the treasures. They hope the large volume of media coverage surrounding the milestone anniversary Thursday, March 18, will help propel the message forward.

“When I first took the case the Office of the U.S. Attorney was firmly against the idea of immunity,” said FBI Special Agent Geoffrey J. Kelly, who has been on it for nine years. “It has become clear that immunity is an essential tool - it weeds out charlatans. It is important to press this point: People can come forward with proof positive and not fear prosecution.

Proof can include one or more of the items filched during the robbery or a detailed photo of the backs of the paintings.

The eagerness to tout the immunity offer - alongside the museum’s well-known $5 million cash reward and an additional promise of anonymity to anyone coming forward - marks a unified grand strategy of sorts for a case that has endured 20 tormenting years of murkiness and missteps.

The immunity offer has been on the table for more than a year, but in recent weeks both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston have made themselves available to press home the point to domestic and foreign media.

That is a far cry from the 10th and 15th anniversaries, when there was spotty cooperation among the FBI, museum investigators and federal prosecutors and no such promise of immunity.

That was before Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore, the lead sleuth on the case, forged ties with the FBI and Brian T. Kelly, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston who has long advocated the immunity idea.

Let’s make a deal

Carmen M. Ortiz, Kelly’s chief at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, said in an interview that “immunity is a significant inducement in this case, especially if someone were fearing repercussions.”

“What I would like the message to be is that immunity is there in terms of encouraging someone who is involved in concealing these paintings or being used as a conduit for their return,” Ortiz said. “It protects them from prosecution for playing that role.”

She said no document has been drawn up because “any formal immunity would be an agreement to be reached after we looked at all the particulars of the offer.”

Geoffrey Kelly of the FBI (no relation to Brian Kelly), said the immunity offer can only advance the possibility of someone legitimate finally coming forward.

“Maybe that person is mistrustful of law enforcement,” he said. “Maybe they have had a bad experience with the FBI, or they may have the attitude that the offer is too good to be true, that they are saying to themselves, ‘I’m going to be paraded before the media and arrested and jailed.’ That’s absolutely not the case.”

“If someone had come forward a week after the robbery and said, ‘I wasn’t involved but I want the reward to turn it in,’ that would stretch credibility a lot,” Kelly said. “But 20 years later, it is logical to think these paintings would have changed hands any number of times and wound up by now in an innocent person’s basement.”

In an interview, Amore said the museum is very pleased with the immunity offer and the cooperation with law enforcement. He noted, however, that anyone with information of the whereabouts of the art can also approach him.

“If someone feels uncomfortable contacting law enforcement, they can come to me directly and be assured of anonymity and the reward opportunity,” he said.

Heist called local job

Even as investigators look to global publicity to fish for clues and tips, they are hunting down leads and say they believe more and more that the most valuable of the stolen items - works by Rembrandt and Vermeer - are within a 100-mile or so radius of Boston, the museum’s home since 1903.

Amore and Geoffrey Kelly both say the crime truly looks to be a job pulled off by Boston-area criminal gangs, many of which were busily robbing fine art from museums and estates across Massachsuetts and northern New England as far back as the late 1960s.

Both heavily discounted the so-called “Dr. No” theory of the crime - the notion that it was commissioned by a “dark overlord” who now enjoys the art alone in a secret lair.

Amore traces that notion to the 1962 James Bond movie in which Bond (Sean Connery), about to dine with the nefarious “No,” is amazed to see a painting of the Duke of Wellington by Goya on his wall. The portrait had been stolen from the National Gallery in London by a 60-year-old amateur thief just before filming began.

Two probes at once

The two men said they see their current probe as “two separate but ongoing investigations.”

Foremost is discovering the location of the art or uncovering efforts by someone to possess and conceal it illegally. Secondary in importance is who committed the crime, although knowing the identities of the thieves could be helpful in determining the works’ whereabouts. Amore and Geoffrey Kelly refused to disclose details on current leads, but said some are fresh and being robustly pursued.

“While the heist itself is one of the most intriguing mysteries in Boston history - we all want to know what happened 20 years ago - the real priority now is ‘Where are they?’ ” Kelly said.

Said Amore: “We get leads and information on the whereabouts of the art and on the ID of the thieves all the time. I have to prioritize them in the order of who might actually have them before who might have stolen them.

“We would set aside a cold lead on who the thieves might have been for a warmer lead on where the art might be.”

Art Hostage Comments:

As you can imagine, this is wonderful news that all those concerned from the Gardner Museum and Law Enforcement have finally agreed to set aside any previous reluctance and sign up to allowing the Gardner art to come home, reward paid, immunity agreement in full.

First, Geoff Kelly Boston FBI Agent refers to "A Clergy Member" when offering a route to recovering the Gardner art, task one done.

Anthony Amore, gives details of the reward and makes it clear a portion of the the reward will be paid for some Gardner art without having to wait until all of the Gardner art has been recovered, task two done.

Anthony Amore also states clearly, the reward is for real going further than ever dared before.

Carmen Ortiz the new U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts has come out publicly and offered the all important immunity agreement.

It must be said however, Brian Kelly Assistant to Carmen Ortiz has worked tirelessly with Anthony Amore to achieve this new attitude towards offering immunity.

Anthony Amore has had Art Hostage constantly driving him to distraction over the immunity agreement for the last few years and Anthony Amore has delivered.

Memo to "You"

It is time, all the things Art Hostage has been asking for have been delivered which has allowed Art Hostage to renounce any interest in collecting any part of the reward money.

All your questions have now been answered and it is time to go to the Priest, deposit the Gardner art in the Catholic Church confession box and allow the Priest to hand back the Gardner art, however many pieces you can retrieve.

The news will break and the Priest will keep your secret behind the secret of the confession and also the Gardner art recovery from a Confession box will offer the Symbolism of Absolution.

Finally, you can just go speak to the Priest and direct him to the Gardner art and he will in turn direct Anthony Amore who will collect.

Location, location, location is all that is needed.

Be nice to get something back before this coming Thursday.

If you are still in two minds, try the Degas drawing as a tester !!

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