Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Friday, June 24, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Whitey Bulger & The Gardner Art Heist

What does Whitey Bulger know about the 1990 Gardner Museum art heist?

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole a Vermeer, five Degas and three Rembrandts.

The masterpieces and four other paintings stolen that day are estimated to be worth more than $500 million.

Two decades later, the case remains stubbornly unsolved. It has been called “the holy grail of art crime.”

But with the arrest in Santa Monica Wednesday of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, many in the art world are now asking: Could it provide a break in the greatest art heist in American history?

Rumors have long swirled that Bulger, the head of the city’s powerful Irish American mob at the time, may have played a role -- or must have known who did.

Some have speculated that he stashed the stolen masterpieces away to use as a “get out of jail free card” if he was ever caught. Others think he sent the paintings to allies in the Irish Republican Army to use as a bargaining chip.

The Gardner Museum had no comment on the arrest on Thursday other than a tweet saying, “Until a recovery is made, our work continues.”

Many who have studied the case are similarly skeptical about Bulger’s direct involvement. Last year, investigators in the Gardner case said that there is no evidence in the mountains of wiretaps and other records to link Bulger to the crime.

“He was quite a powerful figure at the time of the heist,” said Ulrich Bosser, author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft." “But his M.O. was to collect criminal taxes, not to organize fresh crimes.”

As Bosser writes in his book, after Bulger became an informant for the Boston FBI, he helped them take out his Italian competitors, the Cosa Nostra, leaving him the uncontested king of the underworld in Boston. By 1990, his focus was on collecting protection money from lesser underworld figures like bookies and drug dealers.

“To organize something like the Gardner heist doesn’t make sense,” Bosser says.

Still, Bosser and others familiar with the case believe that Bulger may still have important information to contribute. Little happened in Boston in those days without Bulger knowing about it.

“If he was interested, he could have found out what was going on,” said Robert Wittman, the former head of the FBI’s art squad who helped investigate the Gardner theft. “I think there’s a good chance he knows something.”

In Wittman’s memoir, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures,” he recounts a botched undercover sting operation to recover several of the Gardner paintings from two French mobsters living in South Florida.

“We were two weeks away from getting the Rembrandt,” Wittman recalls wistfully.

It was one of many occasions in which the FBI was foiled in an effort to recover the stolen art. The only high-profile case more frustrating may well have been the search for Whitey Bulger, which ended suddenly with his arrest.

“There was an entire squad in the Boston FBI office called the Whitey Bulger Squad,” Wittman says.

“They spent 20 years looking for him all over the world, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to find him. The whole time he was in California.”

Could the Gardner heist soon come to a similarly sudden close? The case is certainly on a long list of things the FBI is hoping to talk to Bulger about, Wittman said.

For Bosser, the real lesson of the Bulger arrest is the important of publicity in keeping a cold case alive. The FBI recently launched a media campaign in 14 cities to help determine Bulger's whereabouts.

“Many people thought this case was over,” he said, referring to the Bulger case. “It was the recent publicity that made the difference. When we think about the Gardner case, publicity will make the difference too.”

“Someone somewhere knows what happened to those paintings.”

Capture doesn’t solve Gardner heist ... yet

Now that elusive Boston mob figure James “Whitey” Bulger has been captured, could the mysterious 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist be the next Hub case cracked?

A museum spokesman said the hunt continues for the culprits, and they have no reason to believe Bulger is connected.

“We don’t rule anything out but ... a lot of people have been on the record saying that they don’t see a connection,” said spokesman Matt Montgomery. “On our part, we haven’t changed the way we are investigating the case. It doesn’t change anything for us. We’re continuing our investigation as we have with the other federal agencies.”

Numerous museum supporters contacted the organization yesterday to express renewed hope the crooks would be collared.

“Now that Whitey Bulger has been arrested, wouldn’t it be great if the Museum’s stolen paintings ... were to be recovered and returned. Amen,” wrote one patron on the museum’s Facebook page.

In response, the museum tweeted yesterday: “We have no info to tie (Bulger) to the theft. Until a recovery is made, our work continues.”

Will Whitey Bulger's arrest lead to recovery of stolen Stewart Gardner artworks?

By the window in the Dutch Room on the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hangs an empty gold frame. It once held Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, The Concert. But that was 21 years ago, before the painting was stolen along with 12 other artworks by two thieves posing as uniformed police officers.

With the stolen art valued at over $500 million, the theft ranks as the largest art theft in U.S. history. Despite countless tips over the years, FBI special agent Geoffrey Kelly admitted just last year that neither the FBI, the Boston police nor the Isabella Stewart Museum has any verifiable leads as to who stole the 13 artworks, how they planned the heist, or where the paintings and artifacts are now.
That’s given authors and filmmakers fodder for all kinds of projects starting in 1999 with publication of Katharine Weber’s literary suspense novel, Music Lesson, in which Vermeer’s The Concert turns up in a remote Irish cottage by the sea, a remnant of a heist commissioned by the Irish Republican Army. Filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus followed in 2005 with a documentary titled Stolen in which she identified Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger as a person of interest in the theft. David Hosp combined these themes in his legal thriller Among Thieves, postulating that the IRA commissioned Bulger to steal the artworks to finance their campaign of terror to force Britain out of Northern Ireland.
But Bulger disappeared before he could be questioned about the Stewart Gardner heist after being tipped by former FBI agent John J. Connolly, Jr., in January 1995 that he was about to be arrested on federal racketeering charges. But with Bulger’s capture last night in Santa Monica, speculation has already begun that Bulger may trade information about the theft for leniency, especially for longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig who was arrested with him.
Even if Bulger didn’t orchestrate the theft, many believe that a crime of that magnitude could not have happened without the powerful Boston crime boss or captains in his Winter Hill Gang knowing who did - or where they’d stashed the art.
Of course, Bulger wouldn’t be the first man to confess to the crime even if he didn’t commit it. Career criminal Myles J. Connor made a splash six weeks ago when he claimed to have masterminded the theft (even though he was in a jail cell in Illinois on the night of the theft). Ditto comedian Stephen Colbert.
However, Bulger could probably give Connor and Colbert lessons in fabricating information to gain an advantage in plea negotiations. But can he dupe Geoffrey Kelly too?
We'll see.

Bulger swoop: FBI capture the mobster who was aided by IRA

James ‘Whitey' Bulger was immensely proud of his Irish heritage.

In fact, it was his Irish-American connections that are believed to have helped America's Most Wanted successfully stay on the run from the FBI for 16 years.

Both Bulger's parents emigrated to Boston from Ireland and, in his late teens, he gravitated towards the Irish-American mafia.

As he became one of the most feared men in Boston, Bulger struck up close links with republican groups in the US. In the 1970s and ’80s he is understood to have visited Dublin and Belfast.

When he finally went on the run in 1995, it was these contacts that enabled Bulger to access safe houses, new identities and, most crucially of all, new passports.

At one time, US police feared Bulger (81) had a new identity provided specially for him by the IRA. Police are convinced he was in Ireland for some time in 2002.

So strong are the links that US police now want to determine if he hid 13 prized paintings – stolen in Boston in 1990 – in Ireland. The paintings include a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, five Degas drawings and a Manet portrait.

The FBI, via Interpol, had regularly been in contact with gardai over suspicions Bulger may have spent some time holidaying in Ireland.

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