Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, Gardner Art Heist Boston Shamefully Soldiers On December 2015

Was anyone watching the Gardner Museum watchman?

Guard who opened the door to robbers in notorious Gardner Museum heist under suspicion 23 years later

Former Gardner Museum night watchman Rick Abath is pictured at an undisclosed location on Thursday, February 21, 2013. On the anniversary of the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist, Abath, whose mistakes let the thieves -- disguised as police -- into the building is going public with his story. Twenty-three years later, investigators are still interested to know if Abath was in on the never-solved theft. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
Former Gardner Museum night watchman Rick Abath is pictured at an undisclosed location on Feb. 21. Twenty-three years later, investigators are still interested to know if Abath was in on the never-solved theft. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
For The Boston Globe
Night watchman Richard Abath may have made the most costly mistake in art history shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990. Police found him handcuffed and duct-taped in the basement of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum seven hours after he unwisely opened the thick oak door to two thieves who then stole 13 works of art valued at more than $500 million.
For years, investigators discounted the hapless Abath’s role in the unsolved crime, figuring his excessive drinking and pot smoking contributed to his disastrous decision to let in the robbers, who were dressed as police officers. Even if the duo had been real cops, watchmen weren’t supposed to admit anyone who showed up uninvited at 1:24 a.m.
But, after 23 years of pursuing dead ends, including a disappointing search of an alleged mobster’s home last year, investigators are focusing on intriguing evidence that suggests the former night watchman might have been in on the crime all along — or at least knows more about it than he has admitted.
Why, they ask, were Abath’s footsteps the only ones picked up on motion detectors in a first floor gallery where one of the stolen paintings, by French impressionist Edouard Manet, was taken? And why did he open the side entrance to the museum minutes before the robbers rang the buzzer to get in? Was he signaling to them that he was prepared for the robbery to begin?
No one publicly calls Abath a suspect, but federal prosecutors grilled him on these issues last fall. And one former prosecutor in the case has written a recently published novel about the Gardner heist in which the night watchman let the thieves into the museum to pay off a large cocaine debt.
“The more I learn about Rick, the more disappointed I get in him,” said Lyle W. Grindle, the former director of security at the Gardner who hired Abath in 1988.
Now, for the first time, Abath is discussing publicly what happened and admitting that some of his actions are hard to explain, but insisting he had nothing to do with what is regarded as the biggest art heist ever.
Abath, then a rock musician moonlighting as a security guard, said he opened the doors that night because he was intimidated by men dressed as police officers who claimed to be investigating a disturbance. His own uniform untucked and wearing a cowboy hat, Abath knew he looked more like a suspect than a guard.
“There they stood, two of Boston’s finest waving at me through the glass. Hats, coats, badges, they looked like cops,” Abath wrote in a manuscript on the robbery that he shared with The Globe. “I buzzed them into the museum.”
Abath, now 46 and working as a teacher’s aide in Vermont, pointed out that his explanation passed two lie detector tests right after the crime. However, he admits he can’t explain why motion sensors in the gallery that housed the Manet detected footsteps only at the two times Abath said he was in the room — and not later when Abath was bound in the basement and the thieves were looting other galleries.
“I totally get it. I understand how suspicious it all is,” said Abath in a recent interview. “But I don’t understand why [investigators] think . . . I should know an alternative theory as to what happened or why it did happen.”
Now that FBI agents have captured elusive mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, the fate of the Gardner’s stolen masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet has replaced “where’s Whitey?” as Boston’s most enduring mystery.
No one has ever been charged in the crime and seemingly promising leads, like the one that led to the search of alleged mobster Robert Gentile’s Connecticut home last May, have invariably fizzled. With no sign of the art works, investigators are left to wonder if the thieves died and took their secret to the grave, or if they are in prison and unwilling to cooperate out of fear of retribution by other conspirators.
But US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the investigation — carried out by her office, the FBI, and Gardner security director Anthony Amore — remains “active, and, at times, fast-moving” even though the statute of limitations for prosecuting the robbery ran out in 1995. Ortiz could still charge anyone possessing the stolen paintings, but she said her office would consider immunity in return for help recovering the masterpieces.
“I am optimistic, and in fact everyone involved in this investigation is optimistic, that one day soon those paintings will be returned to their rightful place in the Fenway,” said Ortiz in a statement.
Abath, who agreed to speak to the Globe to gain publicity for a book he is writing about the robbery, said he first realized he was under suspicion four years ago when FBI agents asked to meet him at a Brattleboro, Vt., coffee shop.
“After 19 years of not hearing a word from the people charged with the task of solving the Great Museum Robbery, they popped up; they wanted to talk,” Abath wrote in the manuscript he shared. To his surprise, one agent told him, “You know, we’ve never been able to eliminate you as a suspect.”
And, he said, they told him they had been watching his bank accounts for years for any signs of sudden wealth.
But if Abath was part of a $500 million art heist, his lifestyle in Brattleboro certainly doesn’t reflect it. He lives with his wife in a modest apartment outside the center of town, where he moved in 1999 to be close to his two children from an earlier relationship.
But investigators say that Abath’s partying lifestyle during the two years he worked at the Gardner could have brought him in contact with the kind of people who might plot a major art theft.
In 1990, Abath was a Berklee School of Music dropout and a member of the struggling rock group Ukiah, and sometimes showed up for the midnight shift at the Gardner drunk or stoned. In a 2005 interview with the Globe — under a grant of anonymity — Abath admitted using marijuana and alcohol before work. In the recent interview, he said he sometimes took LSD and cocaine, too.
The 23-year-old was chronically short of money — the Gardner paid just $7.35 an hour, and his band had to scrape for gigs — so he staged monthly keg parties in Allston that drew hundreds of college-age kids, most of whom were strangers, to raise funds.
On several occasions, he recalled, others who worked as Gardner guards or night watchmen would show up, and invariably the conversation would turn to the inadequacy of the Gardner’s security system, which was plagued by false alarms and featured just a single panic button in case of emergency, located at the front security desk.
“Could someone who had friends who were robbers or in the underworld have heard us complaining how awful the security system was? Absolutely. We were talking about it in the open all the time,” Abath said. “But did I know someone picked it up and used it to rob the place? Absolutely not.”
But investigators are reluctant to rule out the possibility that the thieves had help from the inside since studies show that nearly 90 percent of museum robberies worldwide turn out to be inside jobs. And they’ve questioned Abath closely about his circle of friends and acquaintances in 1990.
On the night of the robbery, Abath said he showed up for work completely sober, having just given his two-week notice to quit the boring job. He and one other watchman would take turns patrolling the museum and staffing the security desk.
Coincidentally, the nearby Museum of Fine Arts had adopted a new security procedure that required night watchmen to get a supervisor’s permission before admitting people after hours — the guards had refused entrance to real Boston police officers who came to the door a few months earlier.
“The museum was at its most vulnerable during the night shift,” explained William P. McAuliffe, the former top State Police commander who instituted the policy after taking over MFA security in 1989. “The entire security rested in the hands of one or two people.”
The Gardner took no such precautions, leaving Abath to make his own decision when the faux police officers rang the buzzer at the entrance on Palace Road at 1:24 a.m. They had been sitting quietly for at least an hour in a civilian car — witnesses recalled it as a hatchback — perhaps trying to avoid the glances of several tipsy college-age people who had emerged from a St. Patrick’s Day party in a nearby apartment building.
About 20 minutes before the thieves came to the door, Abath did something that prompted investigators to ask whether he was signaling the robbers: He opened and then quickly shut the Palace Road door after he had toured the museum galleries and was about to replace his partner at the security desk.
Gardner security officials say that their guards were not supposed to open doors as part of their patrol, and federal investigators have told Abath that none of the other watchmen they interviewed did so.
But Abath vehemently denies he had any bad intentions in opening the museum door.
“I did it to make sure for myself that the door was securely locked,” Abath said. “I don’t know what the others did, but I was trained to do it that way.” He said security logs would show that he tested the door on other nights as well. The FBI seized the logs, but has declined to comment on what they show.
Abath said he knew he wasn’t supposed to let uninvited guests inside, but he was less clear on whether the rule applied to police officers. With his partner patrolling the galleries, Abath decided to buzz inside the men dressed as police officers.
As the pair walked into the Gardner, Abath was at the security desk with quick access to the panic button that would have notified a security firm of an emergency. But one of the thieves — who Abath said was about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with gold-rimmed glasses and a “greasy looking mustache” — asked him to step away, saying, “I think there is a warrant out for your arrest.”
In quick succession, Abath said the officers asked for his ID, put him up against the wall and handcuffed him. Abath said he thought it was just a misunderstanding until he realized the officers hadn’t frisked him before he was cuffed — and the officer’s mustache was made of wax.
“We were being robbed!” Abath wrote in his manuscript.
Abath and his partner, who was also handcuffed as soon as he arrived at the security desk, were wrapped in duct tape and taken to different areas of the basement where they remained until police found them eight hours later. By then, the thieves — along with Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Vermeer’s “The Concert,” and the other art works — were long gone.
Although the masterpieces the thieves stole are valued in the millions, they left behind what is considered Boston’s most prized painting, Titian’s “Rape of Europa,” leaving investigators to wonder about their sophistication. The brutishness with which they treated the art, cutting two Rembrandts from their golden frames while breaking the frames on two Degas sketches, convinced investigators that the men were common criminals taking advantage of a “score” rather than experts commissioned to steal particular works.
Perhaps most baffling is why they spent only 81 minutes inside the museum, mostly in the Dutch Room and Short Gallery on the second floor, when they could have continued undetected for hours.
Equally perplexing, motion detectors that tripped as the thieves made their way through other areas failed to record them entering or leaving the first floor’s Blue Room, where “Chez Tortoni” by Manet was taken. There, the only footsteps detected, at 12:27 and again at 12:53 a.m., matched the times Abath said he passed through on patrol.
Adding to the strangeness, police found the frame from the Manet on security chief Grindle’s chair near the security desk. Was this the gesture of a disgruntled employee sending a message to the boss?
Abath said investigators all but accused him of stealing the missing Manet.
“They wanted to know if I had taken the painting and stashed it somewhere,” Abath said. “I told them as I’ve said a hundred times before and since, I had absolutely nothing to do with the robbers or the robbery.”
Abath’s denials did not deter James J. McGovern, who worked on the federal investigation for the US Attorney’s office in 2006, from writing a novel that portrays a night security guard as an accomplice in the Gardner heist.
In 2012’s “Artful Deception,” McGovern writes that the watchman let the thieves inside to pay off a large cocaine debt. The character with whom the night watchman makes the deal closely resembles David A. Turner, the 1985 Braintree High graduate who has long been considered a suspect in the robbery.
Turner was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison for involvement in a 1999 scheme to rob an armored car warehouse in Easton, a plot that he has contended in court was set up by the FBI to force his cooperation in solving the Gardner crime.
But Abath said he never had any connection to Turner — and has no recollection of buying cocaine from him — though he does say that Turner looks vaguely like the younger, more stocky of the two thieves.
Despite the lingering suspicions about his conduct on the night of the robbery and the admitted excesses of his lifestyle at the time, Abath said he does not feel ashamed that his actions led to the greatest loss of art masterpieces in world history.
“I know I wasn’t suppose to let strangers into the museum after hours, but no one told me what to do if the police showed up saying they were there to investigate a disturbance,” Abath said. “What was I supposed to do?”

The Scandalous Legacy of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Collector of Art and Men

Dec 3, 2015 5:15 PM

The Scandalous Legacy of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Collector of Art and Men
Image via Wikipedia
Long before the gallery she built was famously robbed, Isabella Stewart Gardner was shocking 19th-century society with her disregard for convention.

The first time I encountered Isabella Stewart Gardner was the way most people do: through her museum. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is located near Fenway Park in Boston, just a short walk from the Museum of Fine Arts. Gardner loved the Red Sox; her feelings about the MFA were a little more complicated.
I initially visited the museum in April of 2014—shortly after Gardner's birthday, which is celebrated each year in the Episcopalian Chapel in the museum as stipulated in her will. I walked through the museum with my friend, marveling at the art and at the museum itself, which Gardner had built as her legacy. She had a heavy hand in the design of the building, and her biographer Louise Tharp Hall recounts how she would visit the construction site once a day, often jumping in to show the workers exactly how she wanted things done.

Gardner acquired and arranged each piece of art in the museum and then put it in writing that if anyone were to move anything, the museum would have to give everything to the MFA and shut down permanently. This was a lady who knew what she wanted.
The arrangement is an enigma—style, artists, eras and countries collide in each room. Eventually, my friend and I separated and I found myself alone in Raphael Room. It's a space strewn with religious iconography, white-faced Virgin Marys clinging to their sons. But the centerpiece of the room is Botticelli's The Tragedy of Lucretia. The painting tells the story of a virtuous noble woman who was raped. She then commits suicide, taking the narrative of her life into her own hands.
The museum is predicated on three layers of mystery.
The room overwhelmed me. From scanning a brochure quickly before exploring the museum, I knew that Isabella's son died only a few months before he turned two. I had only recently given birth to my son and witnessed a dear friend lose hers. With that constant jerk and slack on the rope of life—loss and gain—I felt like I understood Isabella, and I related to all those pictures of mothers holding their doomed sons. A few moments later, though, a kind security guard told me that the key to understanding the rooms was looking at where the eyes in the paintings were directed. I learned later the guards here all have their pet theories about the art and Isabella; this theory was the guard's alone. But it was enough to make me think that maybe I had been wrong.
I am not the only one confused. The museum is predicated on three layers of mystery. The first mystery is the mystery of art itself—what does this painting mean? Why this scene? What are the symbols in the art? The second mystery is Isabella—why did she put these paintings together? What was she up to? What does this say about her and her legacy? And the third mystery is the art heist.

Early Life


Isabella Stewart was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 to David Stewart and Adelia Smith. Her father made his money trading textiles and iron. Young Isabella was reportedly a spirited child who got into trouble frequently. Once, she tried to run off to watch the circus and had to be dragged back home, sobbing, by a servant. She attended schools in New York and Paris and traveled with her parents to Italy, where she lost herself in the world of art and wrote to a friend that one day she too hoped to fill a home with art and antiques so others could enjoy them.
A few years later her school friend, Julia Gardner, introduced Isabella to her brother John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, a banker and a staid member of Boston's upper class. He was rich enough to pay someone to fight for him in the Civil War. They married in 1860. Their son, John Lowell Gardner III, was born on June 18, 1863. He died two years later and Isabella was bereft. On the advice of a physician, her husband took her to Europe. The story is that she had to be carried onto the ship on a mattress.
During this time, as you may notice from the dates, America was losing sons by the legion during the Civil War. Body for body, it was America's deadliest war. But Isabella never mentioned this time in her life. In an effort to control how she was remembered she spent a lot of time burning letters and documents about herself. In her later years, she once famously noted that she was "too young" to remember the Civil War.
Patricia Vigderman, in her book The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, speculates that Isabella's reluctance to discuss that time in her life may be more because she was consumed by personal tragedy at the time. While Vigderman doesn't excuse her silence about a tumultuous time in America's history, she does note that "it does reflect an ability to keep renewing oneself in difficult circumstances." And that is exactly what art helped Isabella do. Together, she and her husband toured Norway, Russia, Austria, and France and began collecting art.
Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), by Anders Zorn. Image via Wikipedia.

The Great Men


Isabella began collecting other things too—namely men. She created herself a coterie of artists and writers such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and Henry James. Most of her biographers agree that her relationships were all intellectual—her relationship with F. Marion Crawford, a popular Victorian novelist, caused quite a stir, but nothing besides the tongue-clicking of Victorian ghosts remain to suggest any sort of true scandal. (Isabella did burn all her letters, after all.) In her biography Mrs. Jack, Louise Tharp Hall relates a scene in which Isabella and Sargent played sort of tag down the hall with one another. Crawford's letters recount that she and Sargent read Dante together.
Gardner once remarked, in response to gossip about her, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."
In The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Douglass Shand-Tucci pieces together old rumors, scandals, and whispers from long-dead pearl-clutchers to argue that Isabella was an early champion of gay rights. Many of the men she surrounded herself with were gay. In 1875, she and Jack adopted their nephews after their father, Jack's brother, committed suicide. Years later, the older son would commit suicide as well. Shand-Tucci offers evidence that this was over his love for another man. True or not, Isabella would have loved the gossip. She obsessively saved newspaper clippings of her exploits and once remarked, in response to gossip about her, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."
Vigderman offers another sort of explanation for Isabella collecting men like she collected art—access. She writes, "To enjoy the wider world, women needed links to men who were conversant with it." And Isabella was hungry for the world.

Courting Scandal


Isabella smoked cigarettes, and the newspaper ran stories claiming she had taken zoo lions for a stroll in the park. A dahlia bears her name, and so does a mountain peak in Washington. She once shocked all of Boston Society by showing up to the Boston Symphony Orchestra bearing a headband that declared, "Oh you Red Sox." She invited the Harvard Football team to her home after they beat Yale. She hosted a boxing match at her home and, while the men fought, she danced. She had two large diamonds attached to wires and wore them bouncing in her hair. At the opening of her museum, she served champagne and donuts. The woman courted the world, and the world courted the woman.
Henry James, a member of her coterie, once remarked that Isabella "is not a woman, she is a locomotive—with a Pullman car attached." James often made such underhanded compliments about Isabella, yet he constantly found himself drawn to her. He didn't think she was particularly intelligent. He found her to be a little too forceful, yet he wrote, "how fond of her one always is for the perfect terms one is on with her, her admirable ease, temper and facilite a vivre." As Vigderman told me in an interview, "Whatever else she was, Isabella was fun." The essayist John Jay Chapman described her as "a fairy in a machine shop." The famous Sargent painting of her—in a long black dress, with just the hint of cleavage and a patterned background that lends her both a halo and a crown—shocked Bostonians so much that her husband asked that she not have it displayed. After he died, she put it up in the Gothic room, where it looms high over all the other paintings. Her glowing skin seems to hover away from the canvas.
Detail of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), by John Singer Sargent. Image via Wikipedia.
But that is Isabella through the eyes of others—men. Her art and her museum are the only way to see her the way she wanted to be seen. "C'est mon plaisir" is the motto that sits above her museum: This is my pleasure. This is my delight.
And yet, her narrative thread of whatever story she is telling is hard to follow. Vigderman writes in her book, which seeks to access and understand Isabella, "Isabella Gardner appears not to wish me to complete her. Burning her private papers, exerting control over the future of each piece in her collection, she does not want to be a character in my story."
And in this way, Isabella resembles the modern woman. While we edit our narratives through social media, Isabella carefully curated her life and her presence though gossip and through her museum. Vigderman noted that everything she left behind was part of a performance. "Isabella was both flamboyant and private," she said. Searching for clues about Isabella in the museum is a bit like discussing the nature of Lady Gaga based solely on her meat dress or Kim Kardashian on her Instagram feed—it's both compelling and off-putting, intimate and tightly controlled.
Even as I sat in the Raphael Room and felt a connection with a woman who had died 90 years before I walked into her home, I felt foolish for defining her on my terms alone. There was so much more to all of it. John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo hangs in a nook on the first floor of the museum. It takes up the whole wall. The painting is breathtaking and coy: a woman dancing alone to the accompaniment of men. It's off kilter. The dancer's arms are loose and wild. I don't think I could move my arms that way. I've tried over and over. Although her face lies mostly in the shadow, her mouth gives off an expression that crosses centuries. It's a woman who has no fucks to give. El jaleo means "the ruckus."
El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent (1882). Image via Wikipedia.

Empty Frames


And Isabella was a ruckus. Even today, Isabella can raise some eyebrows. Her art collection was acquired through the art broker Bernard Berenson and many individual pieces were smuggled into the country. She looted the treasures of other nations to build her own collection. She viewed it as "saving the art"—an attitude that's at best a cultural condescension, at worst imperialism. She isn't easy to love sometimes.
She flaunted convention, but burned her letters. She wanted to be remembered but on her own terms. She was bold and a lover of reinvention, but her museum remains static, frozen forever in place. Like Lucretia, she turned on herself. I can understand why. She wanted to tell her own story. Not Henry James' version, nor Crawford's, nor even Sergeant's or Whistler's, but her own. As a result, she invites intimacy, but only up to a point. Just try looking for clues to the exact nature of her relationship with F. Marion Crawford. She is both inviting and inscrutable, just like the art that hangs on her walls.
And then, there is the robbery. In 1990, two thieves stole what is estimated to be $500 million in art from her museum—including five Degas, two Rembrandts and a Vermeer. The art has never been recovered and remains one of America's most enduring unsolved mysteries. The frames now hang in the museum like orbless eyes, and the story of the heist dominates the story of Isabella.
In 1990, two thieves stole $500 million in art from her museum. The art has never been recovered and remains one of America's most enduring unsolved mysteries.
Like so many people, I am obsessed with the Gardner Heist. But I hate talking about it in relation to the woman. It seems just another way of defining a woman by what was taken rather than what remains. While the heist of the Gardner museum is the largest art heist in America. In his book The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser argues that the theft is felt deeply and personally—not only by the staff and the city of Boston but by art lovers everywhere.
And yet, it was those empty spaces that allowed Isabella to become who she became. Vigderman notes that while Isabella the person and the museum have suffered greatly, what is more telling is how they transformed. Isabella used the power of art to transform herself into more than just a motherless son, or the center of society gossip. Similarly, in 2012 the museum transformed itself by opening a 70,000-square-foot addition designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano.
So what are we left with? The same mystery that started this. That's Isabella though. Even years after her death, no matter how you piece her together, the only narrative she fits in is her own.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, Gardner Art Case Enigma November 2015

Gardner heist video brings in tips, but no solid leads

It had the potential to be a breakthrough in the 25-year investigation into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. The six minutes of surveillance footage showing a shadowy figure entering the museum after midnight — exactly 24 hours before thieves made off with $500 million in artwork — generated tips from former museum employees, Internet sleuths, even car enthusiasts who thought they could identify the vehicle seen in the clip.

A Quincy lawyer said his client was convinced the man in the video was an old associate in the antiques business — so sure that the client was afraid “of being killed” if he dared to publicly identify the man. A California woman who once worked as a guard at the Gardner is sure the man in the video was her supervisor, a belief later shared by three of her old colleagues.
Now, three months after the footage was released, investigators said they still haven’t identified the man who entered the side door of the museum early March 17, 1990, leaving them unable to answer a critical question: What was he doing there, in violation of security protocol, the night before two robbers posing as police officers conned their way into the same door and made off with 13 works of art, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts?
Christina Diorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office, said the investigation into the Gardner robbery and the recently released video “is very much active and ongoing,” though she would not discuss specifics of the case.
“Since the release of the video, we have received many tips and information that continue to be vetted,” she said. “We will continue to use all resources at our disposal, including enlisting the public’s help, to solve this crime.”
Though it has been discounted by investigators, one of the more promising possibilities put forward is that the man in the footage was Lawrence P. O’Brien, then the museum’s deputy security supervisor, who died in 2014 at age 77. Four former guards told the Globe they are convinced it is he, including one who has a “vague memory” of O’Brien returning once after museum hours to retrieve a wallet he had left at work.
“I know that’s Larry. He was stocky, and walked like that, always with his jacket collar up,” said another former guard, Cynthia Dieges, now a chef in Atlanta who worked as a manager in the museum’s security department between 1987 and 1992.
The three other former guards who believe the man in the video is O’Brien are Marj Galas, who lives in Los Angeles; April Kelley, a high school English teacher in Central Massachusetts; and Michael Levin, a Framingham lawyer. The four said they had not been contacted by investigators, though Galas said she called an FBI hot line.
However, two former guards who knew O’Brien well told the Globe they do not believe the man in the video was O’Brien. His brother also disputes the ID.
“Larry’s hair was shorter than the fellow shown there,” said David O’Brien, 81, of Somerville.
The conflicting identifications are part of a frustrating attempt to solve the world’s greatest unsolved art heist, and they illustrate the difficulties investigators have faced as new evidence emerges amid old theories of the crime.
The dark figure, who stands by the watch desk for several minutes, is difficult to see in the grainy footage. He also stays out of the view of the museum’s surveillance camera for most of the time, though he appears at one point to be fumbling through paperwork or with some other object.
The old security footage was apparently overlooked and mixed in with other evidence collected at the beginning of the case. In the last year, a team of new investigators began reviewing the old evidence and discovered the video, which apparently had not been viewed before. Authorities released the video to the public in hopes that someone might know the unidentified man and what he was doing at the Gardner after hours. Was it an innocent visit? A dry-run the day before the heist?
One of the only people who might be able to answer those questions is Richard Abath, the then-23-year-old guard who let the shadowy figure into the museum that night. He is also the same guard who was tied up by the robbers after he let them into the same door the following night.
Twenty minutes before the robbers arrived, at about 1 a.m. on March 18, Abath opened the side door of the museum in what several security officials have told investigators was a violation of museum rules.
Abath had told investigators he often opened the side door during his rounds: in fact, he had done it the night before. But he never told investigators he had let someone inside.
Abath has recently told investigators that he could not identify the man in the video and that he could not recall the visit at all. He has declined to answer reporters’ questions about the video.
It could be easy to discount O’Brien as the man in the video based on the memories of his brother and two former coworkers, one of whom was his supervisor. O’Brien, who was 53 at the time of the heist and had been interviewed about it before his death, also never said anything about being at the museum the night before.
But the four former coworkers maintain it is he.
A Globe review of state records shows that at the time of the heist, O’Brien owned a 1982 Ford Escort, one of the types of cars that enthusiasts have told investigators could be the one seen in the surveillance footage.
But officials don’t seem persuaded.
Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said the agency “has followed up on all leads, including the one involving Mr. O’Brien.” She said she could not elaborate on the investigation.
Diorio-Sterling said in a statement that “the public should be assured that we pursue all credible leads.”
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at

‘Master Thieves’ author tells tale of famous Boston art heist

Stonington — Last year, Stephen Kurkjian may have been close to a break in the decades-long mystery of the missing masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston.
While reporting his book, the 2015 investigative thriller "Master Thieves," Kurkjian spent three days interviewing Robert Gentile, the man the FBI believes may know what happened to the paintings.
Almost 25 years earlier, in the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day 1990, two men in police uniforms tied up the night guards at the museum and made off with $500 million worth of art including Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s “The Concert.”
Gentile, just out of prison on a drug charge last year and talking to Kurkjian from his Manchester home, denies he knows where the paintings are, Kurkjian told a packed house at the La Grua Center on Sunday night.
But on a hunch that Gentile may have been a part of an effort to steal the paintings and use them as collateral to get another gangster out of jail, Kurkjian went out on a limb. He made Gentile an offer: come clean and co-write a book about the paintings, then share in the proceeds.
Gentile put his head down for several seconds, and Kurkjian thought he would have a eureka moment in the case that has tormented police and Boston art lovers for nearly 25 years.
His answer was "no," but Kurkjian, who has covered the Gardner heist for more than 20 years in his career as a reporter for the Boston Globe, had enough after three days with Gentile to add to "Master Thieves" and tell most of the story of the missing art.
Kurkjian was a founding member of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team and is briefly portrayed in the new movie "Spotlight," about the group’s work to uncover widespread sexual abuse by local Catholic priests.
The tale of the Gardner museum heist had captured his imagination for many years, he said Sunday.
“This is a hell of a story,” he said to a crowd that spilled out of the lecture hall’s doors.
Despite a $5 million reward and two decades of work by federal investigators, the paintings’ frames still hang empty on the museum’s walls.
Their loss is a tragedy, Kurkjian said, largely because it violated the vision of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston aristocrat and art collector who traveled all over the world to bring high-quality art back to Boston.
“She wanted to bring that appreciation to us, Bostonians,” Kurkjian said. “She wanted to have America have a great tradition in art.”
But Gardner’s will included a demand that nothing be changed in the museum following her death, so the security system was rudimentary. The two security guards – a member of a rock band who was often drunk or high at work and a music student who used the empty museum to practice trombone – didn’t help things, either.
The thieves smashed the paintings, cut them out of their frames, and put them with several other pieces of art into a getaway car and escaped. The FBI agents investigating the case haven’t had a single glimpse of them since, Kurkjian said.
Whether it was a scheme among Boston gangsters to exchange art for lighter prison sentences, as Kurkjian believes, he said the art won’t be found unless an appeal is made to the Boston public to pass along tips.
Whoever may know the paintings’ fate, he said, is likely a member of the city’s working class, uninterested in the work of the police or museum directors.
Someone like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh or Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, respected figures among Boston’s “have-nots,” need to make it clear what the city is missing in those empty frames – the gift of public art that Gardner gave the city when she started the museum, he said.
“That loss has to be felt by all of us,” he said. “We have to feel this loss like it was taken from us.”
Kurkjian’s book doesn’t solve the mystery, but he seemed confident Sunday night that the answer would be found.
“The last chapter needs to be written, and that’s the recovery,” he said.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, Peggy Fogelman, Once More Unto The Breach, As She Meets "The Old Master Painter" At The Gardner Museum

Peggy Fogelman to Lead Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Peggy FogelmanCredit Stephanie Berger
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has chosen Peggy Fogelman, a longtime curator and museum education specialist who currently oversees collections at the Morgan Library & Museum, to be its new director, succeeding Anne Hawley, who led the Gardner for 25 years.
Ms. Fogelman will go from one storied, jewel-box, Gilded Age collection with a Renzo Piano expansion (the Morgan opened its glassy addition in 2006) to another. (The Gardner more than doubled its footprint under Mr. Piano’s guidance, opening its expansion in 2012 and significantly increasing its attendance.)
While Ms. Fogelman, 54, served for a year as acting director of the Morgan during a search for a new director, this will be the first time she has led a museum. She has previously worked in curatorial and administrative positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
In an interview, she said she hoped to bring her experience both as a curator and museum educator to the Gardner, which long ago shook off its reputation as a kind of fusty relic but which Ms. Fogelman thinks could go even further in helping visitors to understand its varied collection, ranging from Old Masters to Islamic art to a focus on music. “This is a multidisciplinary institution, and the way that those various things connect may not always be apparent to people,” she said.
She added that she also planned to continue and perhaps to enhance the museum’s contemporary art program, which has in recent years increasingly brought living artists into the museum through exhibitions and residencies. She said she was interested in exploring collaborations with artists who might take on curatorial projects, with digitally oriented artists and with artists who straddle the line of activism, using art to try to foster social change. “It’s important to keep collections as living collections,” Ms. Fogelman said.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, George Burke Will Announce "The Gardner Museum Eagle Has Landed" & Claims The $100,000 Reward Without Revealing His Client/Source

George Burke, far left
Gardner Museum Eagle, Above, Has Landed At George Burke's Office

George Burke, the Ex-Norfolk County D.A. and now Defence Lawyer, is being used unwittingly as a proxy to return the Gardner Museum Eagle and to collect the $100,000 reward.

When he announced a couple of days ago to the press he has a longstanding client who has information on the mystery man seen in newly released CCTV images from the night before the Gardner art Heist, George Burke was putting into play a strategy whereby a bone is thrown to investigators, who might be able to go arrest Richard Abath and the Florida based accused, opening the way for George Burke to then, shortly, announce that he has been given the Gardner Museum Eagle to hand back and he will claim the $100,000 reward offered by the Gardner Museum without naming his client or source.

This will be done by way of getting media to attend his office whereby George Burke will allow himself to be filmed with the Gardner Museum  Eagle as he calls up either Anthony Amore, Gardner Museum security director, or the FBI or the Boston D.A. Carman Ortiz to tell them he has the Gardner museum Eagle and for them to come over to collect it.

This will be followed by the media filming the actual handing over of the Gardner Museum Eagle to authorities and then George Burke will hope for the $100,000 reward to be paid Swiftly.

This scheme has been conjured up by the client of George Burke and the naming of the Florida man as the person of interest seen in the CCTV images recently released of the Gardner museum the night before the Gardner heist was done to try and link Richard Abath to this man so the Feds can arrest Richard Abath and the Florida man, thereby creating a smokescreen and a sweetener for when George Burke announces he has been given the Gardner Museum Eagle.

Plan B is George Burke is told where the Gardner Museum Eagle can be found, which will be in a Catholic Church Confession Box, so George Burke can attend with authorities to recover the Gardner museum Eagle and claim the $100,000 reward.

I must stress George Burke has done nothing wrong and will do nothing wrong, but given his history in recovering the stolen Rembrandt back in 1975 from Myles Connor he was chosen as a right man for this scheme.
Furthermore, George Burke may not even be aware of this plan until it unfolds shortly.

Speaking of the Rembrandt stolen back in 1975, it was stolen by a then sixteen year old William Youngworth on the instructions of his then mentor Myles Connor, who then used the Rembrandt as a get out jail free card when he handed it back to George Burke, who was the Norfolk County D.A. at the time.
So, if all goes to script, expect to see the Gardner museum Eagle handed back by George Burke shortly.
Then in the words of George Burke, "It has a sense of coming full circle."

U.S. Says Mobster Lied, Claiming Ignorance Of Museum Heist

Federal authorities investigating the baffling theft of $500 million in art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum disclosed in court Wednesday that they had "terminated" a cooperation agreement with aging Hartford gangster Robert Gentile because they believe that Gentile was lying when he testified to a federal grand jury that he knows nothing about the heist.
The disclosure at U.S. District Court in Connecticut reveals nothing about where the irreplaceable art might have ended up, but helps explain why Gardner investigators have focused their efforts of the past five years on the 79-year old Gentile. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham revealed new information about Gentile's grand jury appearance and alleged admissions to an informant in a legal motion filed Wednesday to rebut Gentile's claim that FBI agents had illegally entrapped him in a gun case to pressure him to cooperate on the Gardner heist.

Durham wrote that, in April of 2010, the FBI "tasked" a mob informant "to go see Gentile and engage him in general conversation." The informant was instructed to "pay particular attention to anything Gentile might say about the Gardner Museum theft, but not to initiate any conversation on that topic."
The informant later reported to the FBI that Gentile claimed that one of his former Mafia associates in Boston, Robert Guarente, "had masterminded the whole thing," and had "flipped" before he died of cancer in 2004, according to the court filing.
There is no explanation in the court filing of what Gentile meant by "flipped," a term often used to describe decisions by criminals to admit crimes in hope of leniency from authorities.
Gentile also told the informant, according to Durham's legal filing, that the FBI had offered him immunity from prosecution and a $5 million reward if he could help recover the missing art. And, finally, the informant reported to the FBI that when he asked Gentile whether he had the paintings, Gentile "just smiled."
"Thus, investigators concluded that the defendant had perjured himself before the grand jury in Boston in December 2010 and terminated his 'cooperation' in the early part of 2011," Durham wrote.
Although the new court filing illustrates law enforcement's interest in Gentile, it does nothing to explain the contradictions between suggestions that Gentile has knowledge of the stolen art and his consistent denials to grand jurors and others.
Guarente, a bank robber and drug dealer from Boston, had been a friend and associate of Gentile's for decades. The two men took an oath of allegiance to the mob and were inducted together into the Boston faction of a Philadelphia-based Mafia family in the 1990s, according to multiple sources, including other gangsters and prosecution statements in court.

Guarente was a widely known figure in the New England underworld with a wide network of contacts. A leading theory shared by Gardner investigators is that Guarente had knowledge of the theft and might have had possession of the stolen art.
People with knowledge of the investigation have said that, in March 2010 — a month before the FBI directed its informant to talk to Gentile — Guarente's widow told the FBI and the museum's security director that she saw her husband hand Gentile two of the stolen Gardner paintings outside a restaurant in Portland, Maine, sometime between 2002 and Guarente's death in 2004.
After the assertion by Guarente's widow and at about the time that Gentile allegedly was talking to the FBI informant, he asked federal investigators for an opportunity to submit to a polygraph, or lie detector, examination, in an effort to convince them of the truth of his claims that he has no knowledge of the 1990 heist or the fate of the stolen art.

In the court filing Wednesday, Durham listed the three relevant questions that Gentile was asked and his responses.
"The results of the polygraph establish without question that the defendant was not being truthful in his answers to any of the relevant questions, a fact made known to the defendant and his counsel at the time the tests were run," Durham wrote.

"Indeed, the probability of his answers being truthful was calculated at <0 .1="" a="" and="" answers="" at="" being="" calculated="" comparison="" deceptive="" for="" his="" of="" probability="" purposes="" scoring="" second="" system="" the="" utilizing="" was="">99%."

Gentile was asked the following questions, and gave the following answers, according to the new prosecution filing:
A. Did you know those paintings would be stolen before it happened?
Answer: No.
B. Did you ever have any of those stolen paintings in your possession?
Answer: No.
C. Do you know the current location of any of those paintings?
Answer: No.

The disclosures in court Wednesday are the second ones in the Gardner case in recent days. Last week, the FBI released a video that appears to show a security guard allowing a suspicious, unidentified man into the museum the night before two men disguised as police officers bluffed their way in to the museum and stole the art.
In repeated interviews with The Courant, Gentile denied having any knowledge of or involvement in the Gardner heist.
He admitted that he and Guarente became longtime friends after meeting through the used car business in the 1980s. But he denies being a member of the Mafia. He claims that his association with criminals in Boston was limited to running their card games and cooking for the players. His interest in food, Gentile claims, is the reason for his nickname: Bobby the Cook.
Gentile is now being held at a federal jail outside Providence while awaiting trial on a charge that he sold a gun and ammunition to a convicted, three-time murderer. In an effort to have the case dismissed, he has accused the FBI and federal prosecutors of "outrageous" misconduct, claiming that they effectively engineered a crime and entrapped him so that they could force his cooperation in the Gardner investigation.
Durham was dismissive of the misconduct claim by Gentile's Hartford attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan.
Developing a criminal case against a defendant to induce cooperation in another case is a technique that "is hardly a novel one or which shocks the judicial conscience," Durham wrote.
"There is no evidence relating to the controlled purchase of a firearm and ammunition from defendant that suggests the defendant was anything other than a predisposed, eager, ready-to-make-a-buck purveyor of the firearm," Durham wrote.
Gentile and the government agree that there was an attempt at cooperation beginning in 2010, but it fell apart early the following year. In 2012, the FBI charged Gentile with selling drugs, and he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months. Agents began building the gun case Gentile now faces almost immediately upon his release from prison.
Gentile said the FBI told him he would die in prison if he didn't help locate the paintings. Some of the most important art ever created disappeared about 1:30 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick's Day celebrations wound down around Boston. The museum is a century-old, Italianate mansion that was full of uninsured art and protected by an outdated security system

Mobster Suspected In Museum Theft Case Pleads Not Guilty To Gun Charges
Mobster Suspected In Museum Theft Case Pleads Not Guilty To Gun Charges

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) Or Luigi Giovanni Manocchio (born 1927) Named by Ex-Norfolk County D.A. George Burke's Informant As Gardner Museum Visitor Caught On CCTV Night Before Gardner Art Heist

Art Hostage has learnt that ex-Norfolk County DA George Burke was contacted over the last weekend by an informant who says the mystery man in the surveillance tape released last week was none other than Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) and the informant provided a Boca Raton Florida address for Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962). Mind you, Luigi Giovanni Manocchio fits the bill as well according to other sources.

This is all old news as Art Hostage posted on here about  Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) nearly two and a half years ago and explained how the Gardner art could be recovered, subject to Uncle Joe Ligambi's approval, if only Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) were offered total immunity and the reward.

That said, Art Hostage wonders if  Luigi Giovanni Manocchio (born 1927) known as "Louie", "The Professor", "The Old Man" and "Baby Shacks" could shed some light on the Gardner case as his name has been floated about recently?

Art Hostage also stated that the Gardner art should be left in a Catholic Church confession box and has been calling for that method of recovery for nearly two decades. So, it matters not who decides to leave the Gardner art in a confession box, Joey Merlino or Luigi Giovanni Manocchio, or Uncle Joe Ligambi, just the recovery of the Gardner art is paramount as it seems like the Feds are being thrust into the spotlight and will take down whomever prevents the Gardner art being recovered.
Time has come whereby the Gardner art has become a millstone around the neck of  Underworld figures and time to hand it back and take the heat off themselves.

The Feds have had Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) under close scrutiny since his release from jail back in 2011. They tried, in vain, to pressure Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) by having him arrested for being in the company of a known Wise-guy at a restaurant and Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) was held in jail on a parole violation until a judge released him this last April 2015.
So, it is as explained by Art Hostage why Bobby Gentile has stayed quiet and not offered co-operation and why the Gardner art is still un-recovered. Same with Gardner Museum security guard Richard Abath, terrified to reveal anything for fear of what may happen?
However, the final decision rests with Uncle Joe Ligambi to reach out and act as the peacemaker, as Art Hostage has stated before.

BREAKING NEWS — Mobster Skinny Joey Merlino Released From Federal Custody . . . Returns to Maitre D’ Gig in Boca Raton

Joey Merlino
Skinny Joey Merlino and a fan on the beach in Boca Raton (Gangsters Inc. photo)
flag-breaking-newsBOCA RATON — Former Philadelphia organized crime boss “Skinny Joey” Merlino returned to his gig as maitre d’ in a Boca Raton eatery over the weekend, just hours after he was sprung from his federal half-way house.
Merlino, 53, who spent most of his adult life in federal custody and on probation, was let go when an appeals court order his release.
He left federal custody Friday, three weeks before his four-month sentence for violation of probation was supposed to end.
Gossip Extra exclusively reported last year that Merlino, who looked like he was trying to live a normal suburban in Boca Raton, was tailed by Broward County Sheriff’s deputies to a meeting with fellow Mafia don John “Johnny Chang” Ciancaglini at a Boca cigar bar.
At the time, Merlino was strictly prohibited from associating with known crime figures because he was finishing up his probation on the racketeering conviction that cost him 14 years hard time.
Merlino claimed he was not properly notified of the violation, and the appeals court agreed and ordered him gone.
Merlino moved to a $400,000-condo in Boca Raton when his racketeering sentence ended almost three years ago.
Investors opened Merlino’s earlier this year in downtown Boca and offered Skinny Joey a salaried job as maitre d’. Merlino claims the recipes for the joint’s Philly-style Italian food came from his mother.

Please read this post by Art Hostage from March 2013 offering a solution, swinging on a star:

Followed by this posted May 2014:

Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) would organise the return of the Gardner art via a Catholic church confession box, once Uncle Joe Ligambi agrees, if the reward offer was made collectable and immunity was solid. Same goes for Luigi Giovanni Manocchio, reward guarenteed, immunity secured, Gardner art recovered.
Art Hostage has been calling for the Gardner art to be left in a Catholic Church cofession box for nearly two decades as a compromise.

THE ART OF THE HEIST – How A Group of Boston Wise-Guys Pulled Of The Biggest Rare-Art Theft In World History & Never Got Caught
Part I: Beginner’s Luck 

Bobby D probably did the job. It was the biggest art heist in history, a half-billion dollar score. Boston Bobby might have moved the very valuable paintings to Philly. Bobby Boost could have had some, too, and transported them to Connecticut and then off to Maine. Bobby the Cook is said to have taken at least one piece, maybe more, from Bobby Boost in Maine and returned it to Connecticut. The rest of the lucrative haul lay somewhere in hiding, cultural treasures, seminal artifacts from bygone eras in time, buried like dead bodies. Like Bobby D.
The mob had bullied their way into the art game. They proved fast-learners.
In the early-hours of St. Patrick’s Day 1990, about 1:30 in the morning on March 18 to be exact, two armed robbers dressed as police officers talked their way into the Isabella Gardner Museum. The Isabella Gardner is a small, but very elite, privately-funded precious-art museum in downtown Boston, Massachusetts, located near the famous Fenway Park.
Pulling their weapons and tying up the museum’s security guards in the building’s basement, the two men had free access to the place for the next hour and a half, coming away with more than a dozen paintings and drawings that are estimated to be worth a staggering $500,000,000 – confirmed as the largest art-robbery ever, the thieves scored original Rembrandts, Degas, a Manet and a Vermeer, worth tens of millions each.
And if either of them had even the slightest idea of the waters they were wading in, any remote clue of the inner-workings that was the cloak-and-dagger world of fine art theft, they would have come away with a lot more. They succeeded in spite of themselves.
To this day, 25 years later, the case remains cold, not a single person arrested, not a single piece of artwork retrieved. Just this past spring, the Boston FBI publically stated that the investigation was open, very active and that several sightings of the missing art had been recently authenticated. One of the suspects was recently sent to prison on an unrelated conviction.
Although no charges have ever been filed (the statute of limitations has expired), the FBI believes it has a pretty good idea of what happened and who did it – according to an interview with lead federal investigator Geoff Kelly in May, the heist was planned and carried out by members and associates of the New England mafia aka the Patriarca Family and the stash of looted masterpieces shuffled between Boston, Connecticut, Maine and Pennsylvania by representatives of both the Patriarcas and the Philadelphia mob. Where they exactly reside today is unknown and remains one of the most fascinating and vexing unsolved crimes in American history
One retired federal agent that worked the case in the 1990s and early 2000s agreed to speak to about his knowledge of the legendary crime.
“The whole thing began with Bobby Donati, they called him “Bobby D,” he was a lifelong wiseguy who belonged to the North End crew,” the former ‘G’ Man said.
Coming up in the mafia under the Angiulo brothers (New England mob underboss Jerry Angiulo and his four sibling lieutenants), when the Isabella Gardner robbery occurred in 1990, Bobby D belonged to a Patriarca regime ran by then-capo Vincent (Vinnie the Animal) Ferrara, a growing power in Family circles at that time and the man that took over the Angiulo’s North End neighborhood operations upon their imprisonment in the 1980s. Donati was known as an accomplished cat burglar and all-around hard-core gangster and hit man, running with a rugged bunch of Beantown burglars, hoods and mobsters (including his brother “Dickie D” Donati) that were unafraid to get their hands dirty and had those hands in multiple gangland rackets across New England.
The FBI believes that Donati got a tip in the years leading up to the heist about the lax security at the museum from an indebted gambler to one of the sports books that he ran on behalf of Ferrara.
“Some degenerate bettor that owed Donati money traded info he had on the museum for a pass on his gambling debt,” the retired agent said. “The guy had the skinny on the joint because he used to work there as a maintenance man and knew what little security they had going on at the place.”
The one problem was that although Bobby D had stolen and fenced a lot of things in his life, he had never stolen artwork and knew nothing about the complicated black market associated with moving such exclusive and rare hot merchandise. So according to what the FBI has been told by informants, Donati brought in an expert. That expert was Myles Connor, a Bostonian considered the No. 1 art thief in the United States by the federal government at his peak in the 1970s and 80s.
Today, Connor, 71, is retired. Sort of – he’s stopped pulling big scores, at least, switching to petty crime. Two years ago he took a pinch for robbing a woman of her cell phone in Rhode Island. He’s authored a book and currently lectures about his life in the Eastcoast underworld and time as a gallivanting pilferer of artistic masterpieces throughout the latter-part of the 20th Century.
Back then, however, in the late-1980s, Connor was as active as ever and heavily intrigued by Donati’s tip and the mother-load of priceless riches that lied within the confines of the Isabella Gardner.
The two of them planned to take it down. Connor has admitted to the FBI that he and Donati cased the museum in the summer of 1989.
But Connor was locked up in January 1990 on series of racketeering and art-theft charges, sentenced to serve the next 20 years in prison, leaving Donati all by himself on the job.
Bobby D got antsy. He wasn’t intending on waiting another two decades for Connors to get out of prison before acting on the tip.
Enter David Houghton.
Donati and Houghton, a hulking gangland strong-arm and street-tax collector, hung out together at TRC Auto Electric, a car repair shop in working-class Dorchester, Massachusetts, just outside Boston’s city limits, owned by Patriarca Mafioso Carmelo (The Auto Man) Merlino.
“The Auto Man, Carmelo Merlino, told Donati he had a buyer for the score overseas, they got the okay to pull it and the rest is history,” the former Fed says.
The take could have been much larger. The thieves, believed by most authorities to have been Donati and Houghton, both had untrained eyes and bypassed several, even more valuable pieces in the museum.
“Those two didn’t know a Rembrandt from a root beer bottle,” the one-time mob-buster said of the pair. “They were in over their heads on the whole thing.”
FBI records from the early-1990s reveal intelligence coming in from informants on the street pointed to Ferrara and East Boston mob chief and Patriarca street boss and consigliere Joseph (J.R.) Russo as giving the go-ahead for the job to Donati through Merlino.
However, things fell apart quickly. Merlino’s buyer fell through and literally a week after the epic heist Ferrara and Russo, along with 19 others, were swept up in a giant federal racketeering case that sent both of them to prison (Russo would die while incarcerated, Ferrara has been out for a decade and reportedly has gone legit and surrendered any and all of his interests in the mob).
The artwork was placed into storage in Revere, Massachusetts until Donati, Houghton and Merlino could line-up another prospective buyer, according to Massachusetts State Police documents. Revere is a suburb of Boston and known for years to be where many of the Patriarca mob brood held and currently hold residence.
With the indictment and incarceration of Ferrara and Russo, Bobby D and his two accomplices had more pressing concerns to worry about than selling the boosted art. The Patriarca syndicate, which had recently seen tensions calm after a spattering of violence the year before (Boss-candidate Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme survived an assassination attempt and underboss William (The Wild Man) Grasso was killed by the Ferrara-Russo faction of the Family on the same day in June 1989) was back at war. Cadillac Frank Salemme took the reins in Boston from his rival, the departing Russo, and took aim at those he considered responsible for the botched hit on him and were still on the street following the March 1990 bust.
One of the people he turned his attention to was Bobby Donati, 50 years old and tabbed by some as a frontline soldier in the early-stages of the dispute repping Ferrara, someone he sometimes acted as a driver for and escorted around town to the city’s most posh restaurants and clubs in Vinnie the Animal’s heyday as a big shot in the Beantown underworld.
The rare art Donati had access to, his share of whatever was sold, was simply an added bonus, per the former FBI agent.
“Bobby D was in the crosshairs the second Vinnie and J.R. were put away,” he said. “Frank Salemme knew about the Gardner Museum stash, but he would have been killed anyway. Salemme wanted to get rid of anyone he saw as overly loyal to Vinnie Ferrara. Donati fell into that category.”
On September 24, 1991, Donati’s badly-beaten body was found hogtied in the trunk of his car. Massachusetts State Police reports indicate that certain groups in the state’s law enforcement community believed Bobby D’s murder was carried out by East Boston mafia henchman Mark Rossetti, a future New England mob capo who would be outed as a Confidential Informant for the FBI.
“Informant B3467MSPOCU tells Officer redacted name that Rossetti slit Donati’s throat,” it said in one particular MSP file.
Rossetti’s uncle, Boston wiseguy Robert (Bobby Boost) Guarente, was about to get in on the action.
Guarante and two more Bobbys and New England Goodfellas, Robert (Boston Bobby) Luisi, Jr. and Robert (Bobby the Cook) Gentile entered the picture after Donati was murdered and his accomplice, David Houghton, died of cancer a year later in 1992. Merlino needed help moving the artwork on the black market (something he also had zero experience in, since he had no criminal history in the art-heist racket, just as Donati and Houghton didn’t) and according to federal authorities, “The other three Bobbys” would try to help him.
They would find limited success in their endeavors.
Part II; The Three Bobbys
The piping-hot paintings were up for grabs.
It was 1993. In less than three years, the whole back-end of the Isabella Gardner robbery had gone to shambles and wasn’t even close to completed.
The men that pulled off the most infamous and lucrative art heist in history, Boston mobsters Robert (Bobby D) Donati and David Houghton, were both dead, their $500 million dollar score – 13 original paintings and drawings spawned from the hands of Rembrandt, Dega, Manet and Vermeer and stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in March 1990 – stashed away, in storage, hidden somewhere in the greater Beantown area.
Two of the paintings alone could be worth over $100 million a pop: Rembrandt’s only seaside work, entitled, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s “The Concert,” an oil-canvassed masterpiece by the 17th Century Dutch painter and considered the crown-jewel of the notorious theft.
According to Massachusetts State Police records, after Donati and Houghton died, the art haul landed in the sole possession of Carmello (The Auto Man) Merlino, a Boston Mafioso alleged to have conspired with Donati and Houghton to pull off the robbery in the first place. However, Merlino, who ran a series of racketeering operations out of his Dorchester, Massachusetts car-repair business, TRC Auto Electric, had neither, the expertise needed nor the access to the pockets of the black market geared towards historic treasures, to move the art.
Prior to the robbery Merlino thought he had lined up a fence in Europe set to sell it to collectors in France and possibly representatives of the IRA in England, per the MSP files. Neither came to fruition.
The FBI knew via informants early on that Merlino was most likely involved and were watching him with intense scrutiny throughout the entire decade of the 1990s. In 1997, they inserted two agents undercover into Merlino’s crew, coming away with nothing but some innuendo and boasts by Merlino of having access to the hidden score, however nothing concrete to link anybody to.
The most promising intelligence the FBI attained was revealed in an inter-agency memo with the Massachusetts State Police and the Boston Police Department.
“Agent REDACTED was told that MERLINO was given approval by his superiors in the NEW ENGLAND LCN to move pieces of the Isabella Gardner score. MERLINO is alleged to have been passed word of the okay by NEW ENGLAND LCN Consigliere CHARLES (Q-BALL) QUINTINA.”
Throughout the course of the undercover work, the FBI found out of Merlino’s plan to rob an armored car depot and arrested him and two accomplices in February 1999 en route to pulling the job. Questioned about his knowledge of the Isabella Gardner heist, Merlino refused to answer any questions. He would die in prison.
Merlino’s right-hand man was Robert (Bobby Boost) Guarente, a lifelong crook and Boston Mafioso with a lengthy rap-sheet. His first bust was back in 1958 for forging checks. A decade later, he was nabbed for heading a bank-robbery ring and earned his nickname for knocking over some three dozen banks or armored-trucks in his career in the New England underworld.
Bobby Boost was a well-liked wiseguy and often used as a go-between for various east coast mob factions during the 1980s and 90s. His best friend and gangland running buddy was Robert (Bobby the Cook) Gentile, a like-minded gangster and thief that was frequently seen in Guarente’s company. The pair were known to have pulled numerous scores together.
Gentile’s arrest-record dated back to the late-1950s just like his pal Bobby Boost, and included collars for aggravated assault, robbery, receipt of stolen property, bookmaking and counterfeiting. For his legitimate income, Bobby the Cook was in the concrete-pouring business and his company was quite well-regarded for its quality work. His skills in the kitchen were quite well-regarded as well, gaining him his nickname.
Around 1997, Guarente and Gentile went to work for Robert (Boston Bobby) Luisi, Jr., a recently-named capo in the Philadelphia mafia operating in New England. Mainly, they acted as bodyguards and cocaine distributors on his behalf. Boston Bobby lost his father and brother to a November 1995 mob slaying in a Charlestown restaurant, two of the final victims of the long-ranging conflict that engulfed the Patriarca syndicate throughout the late-1980s and into the early-to-mid 1990s.
Luisi, Jr. met some members of the Philly mob in prison and defected for the offer of being made into La Cosa Nostra, something he failed to do while serving under the Patriarca regime. Initiated into the mafia by Philadelphia LCN boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino (no relation to Carmen), Boston Bobby was immediately promoted to captain status and allowed to put a crew together to run in Massachusetts. The “Three Bobbys,” Bobby Luisi, Jr., Bobby Guarente and Bobby Gentile were all inducted into the mafia in the same ceremony.
“Those three were mob vagabonds that anchored their ship to whatever or whoever suited their individual interests the best,” said a retired FBI agent of the threesome of New England goombahs. “Frankly, they were second-rate wiseguys and their involvement in this whole thing demonstrates how desperate things got with trying to move this artwork, to just find any kind of money to show for their efforts.”
According to FBI and Massachusetts State Police records, Luisi, Jr. was given paintings from the Isabella Gardner robbery via Guarente, who in turn had got them from Carmello Merlino (no relation to Skinny Joey), and took them to Philadelphia, possibly selling them to an art collector in suburban Bucks County.
Skinny Joey’s Boston mob crew was short-lived and ill-conceived. Luisi, Jr. was busted in a drug-distribution conspiracy and turned over on Guarente, Gentile and Skinny Joey himself.They all went to prison and the paintings remained unearthed.
When Bobby Boost Guarente got out from behind bars in 2000, he retired to Maine. The FBI believes he brought the Isabella Gardner artwork with him.
In March 2002, Gentile drove from Boston to Portland, Maine to meet Guarante for dinner. It was immediately after finishing their meal at a fancy seafood restaurant on the water that authorities think Bobby Boost passed two of the stolen paintings to Bobby the Cook Gentile in the eatery’s parking lot.
So says Guarente’s widow, Elene. She came forward in early 2010, some half-dozen years following her husband’s death as a result of cancer, and told investigators that Guarente had a stash of the paintings in their cabin in the woods in Maine and removed at least two of them prior to leaving for their 2002 rendezvous, which he handed over to Gentile after they ate but before they parted ways.
Gentile, 77, denies Elene Guarente’s allegations or ever possessing the ripped-off art. However, the case for that argument took a blow in a 2012 federal raid of his Manchester, Connecticut home, where the FBI discovered amongst an arsenal of weapons and a large cache of prescription painkillers that he had no prescription for, a hand-written list of each of the stolen pieces of Isabella Gardner artwork accompanied with their estimated black-market values. Further hurting his cause is the fact that Gentile reportedly failed an FBI-administered lie-detector test.
Facing narcotics and gun charges, Bobby the Cook stayed true to the code of the streets and refused to spill the beans. Instead, he took the fall and last year he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Gentile was under constant surveillance by the FBI in Connecticut during the 2000s, as his Clean County Used Cars lot was a local Hartford mob hangout.
The paintings remain missing.
The Isabella Gardner Museum displays blank frames in the places on its walls where the 13 stolen pieces once hung. It’s going on 25 years and every single frame is still empty.
“Besides the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, I think not solving the Gardner heist sticks in the Bureau’s crow more than any other case ,” the former FBI agent said. “And these weren’t super thieves, Thomas Crown-types. They were knockaround guys that fell into the score of a lifetime  by sheer blind luck and didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. Now in the end, everyone’s deprived. The people that got the art aint selling it, or if they did sell some of it, they got a pittance of what they stole. So they aren’t coming out ahead. And then in terms of culture and history, everyone, the whole god damn world, is deprived of appreciating that brilliant artwork because it’s sitting in hiding in someone’s basement, not on display in a museum or where people can view it. Nobody won in this thing, everybody got screwed.”
To this very day, the Isabella Gardner leaves the frames where the artwork once hung from the museum walls empty.