Degas, Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2, 1884
Has the Above Degas been recovered recently, was it recovered a long time ago but kept top secret, is it in play as a taster to test the water????????????
Art Hostage loves the smell of Gardner art in the morning !!
All sorts of rumours, whispers, allegations and accusations abound.
Set ups, stings, broken promises, false dawns, 2015 is already proving to be a watershed year as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gardner Art Heist approaches on March 18th 2015.
Art Hostage may be many things, but reckless is not one of them.
Details to follow......................................
In the meantime here is the latest from the mainstream media.
Does a Connecticut shed hold the secrets of the Gardner heist?
On the theft’s 25th anniversary come never-before-revealed details of an aging con man and the FBI’s search of his property.
The FBI searched the shed in Robert Gentile’s Connecticut backyard, believing artwork stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was kept there.
By Stephen Kurkjian March 11, 2015
On March 18, 1990, thieves took 13 works of art from the Gardner Museum, leaving behind broken frames.
ROBERT V. GENTILE was losing control of the situation, and he knew it. For months the aging hood from the Connecticut suburbs around Hartford had been promising to aid the FBI in its investigation into the whereabouts of the nearly half billion dollars’ worth of paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990. But those promises had led nowhere.
Instead, during the time he had been helping them, the same federal agents were arranging to bust him for selling more than 300 tablets of Oxycontin, Dilaudid, and Percocet — all pain relievers he had been prescribed by doctors for his back pain — to an undercover informant. That way, if he backed out of cooperating with them on the Gardner score, they could arrest him and pressure him to talk anyway.
The room in the US attorney’s office in downtown Hartford was chaotic, crammed with prosecutors, FBI agents, and investigators that day in April 2012. They knew they had Gentile in a tight spot. Gentile had just been indicted on drug charges and, even though there may have been extenuating circumstances, he was well into his 70s and still faced the real prospect of a long prison sentence, one that in his health he might never return from. To Gentile and his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, it seemed the only way around those charges was to submit to a lie detector test. If Gentile could pass the test, he thought, it might just convince the federal agents and prosecutors bearing down on him that what he had been telling them — that he didn’t know anything about the whereabouts of the Gardner artwork — was true and they would drop the drug charges against him, or at least let him off easy.
The whole thing had started two years before, in 2010, when the widow of Gentile’s old friend Robert Guarente told investigators that before her husband died in 2004 he had given two, maybe three paintings to Gentile for safekeeping. They may have been from the theft at the Gardner Museum.
“Sure, I knew Bobby Guarente,” Gentile had told the investigators when they originally approached him. “And yeah, maybe we did talk about the Gardner case. But it was only to talk about how great it would be to get that $5 million reward. Guarente never had any of those paintings, and he certainly never gave me any of them.”
Learn more about the Globe’s re-examination of the Gardner heist, view the lost masterpieces, watch how the thieves broke in, and review the investigation over the years.
As Gentile walked into the interrogation room at the Hartford federal building and surveyed the determined faces, he thought to himself, The only way of getting them to drop these charges against me is to convince them I’m telling the truth. “Go ahead,” he told them. “Hook me up.” And they did. Ronald Barndollar, the retired FBI agent who was called in to conduct the polygraph exam, began things on a serious note, advising Gentile of his need to tell the truth. Then he asked the first question: “Did you know beforehand that the Gardner Museum was going to be robbed?” asked Barndollar. “No,” Gentile answered.
In an adjacent room the polygraph machine registered that Gentile’s answer was a lie.
Gentile was shown pictures of the 13 stolen works of art. With each one he was asked: “Did you ever have possession of any of the stolen artwork?” “No,” Gentile answered again, and again the polygraph machine registered each time that Gentile was lying. “Do you know the location of any of those paintings?” “No,” Gentile answered. And again, the polygraph machine registered the likelihood that Gentile was lying.
When the exam was over, Barndollar excused himself and came back in a few minutes with the results: Gentile had been lying in response to every question. The investigators let out a howl in unison. “This guy is gonna rot in jail if he doesn’t give us something,” Gentile recalls one saying.
McGuigan asked if he could have a little time with his client. When they were alone, he shot Gentile a stern look that said, What the hell are you doing? McGuigan’s hope that the polygraph test might do Gentile some good had disappeared fast. Gentile reached over and grabbed McGuigan’s arm. “I’m telling the truth; it’s that goddamned machine,” Gentile told him. “They’ve rigged it to make me look like a liar. Tell them I want to take it again. I’ve got an idea. You’ll see.” Gentile’s idea: In taking the test again, he would concoct a story that he had seen one of the stolen paintings.
Within minutes, the whole procedure was repeated. The images of the stolen pieces were again shown on a screen. As each one scanned past, Gentile was asked if he had ever seen the piece after it had been stolen. Vermeer’s The Concert? No. Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee? No. Rembrandt’s Lady and Gentleman in Black? No. The miniature self-portrait by Rembrandt? There was a long pause. The room suddenly went still. “Yes,” said Gentile. And on this question, the polygraph registered he was telling the truth.
“What are you talking about?” one of the investigators asked Gentile, with an almost manic sound in his voice. “When did you see this? Where did you see it?”
Like criminals of all stripes, Gentile prided himself on never snitching, especially not in front of a room full of feds. But Elene Guarente had dragged him into this by implicating him in hiding three paintings, so he figured the least he could do was return the favor.
“Elene Guarente showed it to me,” Gentile said, referring to the widow of Robert Guarente, the mob soldier whose reach extended from Boston to Maine. “It was a long time ago. It was tiny. Like a postage stamp. She pulled it out of her bra, where she was hiding it, to show me. She told me it was going to provide for her retirement. Maybe get her a house in Florida with it.”
The FBI agents and federal prosecutors looked at each other in disbelief. Barndollar excused himself and retrieved the results from the other room: It showed that Gentile had answered honestly when he told them he had seen the miniature Rembrandt self-portrait. As far as the machine was concerned, Gentile was telling the truth.
Vermeer’s “The Concert” was stolen, too.
THE NAME ELENE GUARENTE wasn’t new to federal agents. In fact, just two years before, she’d told them that her husband had handed Gentile several paintings in the parking lot of a Portland, Maine, restaurant. The feds had dug into Gentile’s background and discovered he had deep ties to organized crime figures in Connecticut and may have been operating a loan-shark business there. After that they’d tracked Gentile’s activities closely, waiting for the right moment when they could put pressure on him to find out more about his mob dealings. But now, in the face of Gentile’s stunning admission, federal agents who had labored on the Gardner investigation for more than two decades had in their midst a suspect who was at the very least involved in hiding the artwork.
Following the test, McGuigan, who had been a prosecutor before joining his father’s law firm in Hartford, remained convinced that Gentile’s disastrous showing had more to do with the raucous setting in which the exam was given than with Gentile’s veracity. He asked for one final meeting in the US attorney’s office to try to convince federal investigators that Gentile was being honest. Gentile would be brought in from the state prison where he had been held since his February 2012 arrest, along with his wife, Patricia, son Bobby, and daughter Donna. To try to make the atmosphere more amenable for his client, McGuigan ordered special sandwiches from Gentile’s favorite Italian restaurant. The feds brought their own sandwiches — from a local Subway.
From the outset, McGuigan did most of the talking, stressing to Gentile that this was his last chance to assist the investigators in their search for the missing Gardner paintings.
“They are convinced you’re not telling them everything, and I’m telling you that this may be your only way out,” Gentile remembers McGuigan saying. “These people are serious. With these charges you’re facing and the condition of your health, if they get a conviction, they can put you away for the rest of your life.” If he knew what happened to the paintings, this was the time to come clean. “This is more important than just paintings, Bob. This is about history. This is about humanity. There have been millions of Bobby Gentiles and Ryan McGuigans on this Earth and there will be millions after us . . . but there’s only one Rembrandt,” McGuigan continued.
Gentile looked sadly over at his wife and grown children, and McGuigan picked up on it. “You’ll never get to hug your wife again, or your kids or grandkids,” he said. “Give these people what they want. Tell them what you know about the paintings.”
Gentile put his hands, big and rough from a lifetime of working in the paving industry, over his face. The room fell silent for a few seconds as he sobbed. “In your right mind, do you think I would hold out if I knew something?” Gentile asked. “I know there’s a $5 million reward here. Do you think I would deny my family $5 million and get these charges off my back if I could? I’ll tell you again, I don’t know anything, and whoever is telling you different is lying.”
Gentile went back to prison and waited to head back to court to face the drug charges.
A FEW DAYS LATER, a squad of FBI agents descended on Gentile’s house in Manchester, a few miles east of downtown Hartford. More than two dozen agents surveyed his front and back yards, looking for signs of recently dug holes or anything else that might point to hidden treasures. They did likewise inside the house, going through every room, every drawer, and every nook and cranny — the basement included — looking for any clues that would prove Gentile had any association with the stolen paintings.
The search gave the investigators proof that they were on the right track. Down in the cluttered basement, among a pile of old newspapers, investigators found a Boston Herald that reported on the extraordinary theft. A sheet of typewriter paper was tucked into the newspaper. On the sheet was written the names of the 13 pieces that had been stolen. Alongside the names was scratched the amount that each might draw on the black market.
The find surprised even McGuigan. Even though he was never convinced Gentile had anything to do with the stolen masterpieces, McGuigan thought to himself, maybe it had been a good idea that he had signed a separate contract with Gentile. It stated that he would represent Gentile as he cooperated with the authorities, and if it led to a recovery, McGuigan’s office would receive 40 percent of the $5 million reward offered by the Gardner.
McGuigan was returning from court on another case when he got word about the FBI raid on Gentile’s house. When McGuigan arrived, he quickly sought out Brian Kelly, then the assistant US attorney from Boston who was overseeing the Gardner investigation. Inside, McGuigan saw Gentile’s wife, sitting quietly on the living room sofa as agents walked briskly throughout the house. One agent handed McGuigan the warrant that had been signed that morning by a federal judicial officer to authorize the search of the house and backyard. Realizing that a backyard shed had not been included specifically in the search, the agents had gotten a second warrant that authorized that search.
On May 10, 2012, federal agents raided Robert Gentile’s home in Manchester, Connecticut.
Gentile’s son shared McGuigan’s confidence that his father knew nothing about the paintings’ whereabouts. He assured the agents that while his father was a pack rat, he did not have the connections or the wherewithal to hide such priceless art. The only place he could imagine his father hiding anything valuable was in his shed. Whereabouts in the shed, one agent asked him casually. And Robert Jr., who shared his father’s softer side, gave him a straight answer — his father had placed a false floor in the front of the shed, and beneath it, he had dug a deep pit, and inside the pit there would be a large plastic, Tupperware-type container. Whatever’s important will be in a plastic container inside that pit, the younger Gentile told the agents.
His instructions set the agents off into a mad scramble, in which they tore up the false floor inside the shed, and found the deep pit under it and the big plastic container inside — a big empty plastic container. Shown the container, young Gentile had one more piece of compelling information: A few years before, there had been a severe rainstorm in the area; water had flooded their backyard and gotten into the shed and even into the ditch beneath the shed’s false floor. Whatever had been in the ditch had been destroyed, Gentile’s son told the agents, adding that he had never seen his father as upset in his life as he was about the loss. When I asked Gentile about it, he said he didn’t recall the incident but thought it could have involved a couple of small motors getting wet.
A few days later, federal agents and Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum’s security director, brought Gentile back to the Hartford federal building where he had taken the lie detector test a month before. One of the FBI agents got right up in Gentile’s face. “We know what happened,” he said. “Your son told us about the shed and how the pit got flooded.”
“Tell us where those canvases are,” Amore pleaded, assuming the role of “good cop” in the situation. “Even if the paintings are damaged or destroyed, I’ll see to it that you get a share of the reward money. Just show us the canvases.”
Gentile had been thrust into the middle of what federal investigators believed was their biggest break in their long, arduous pursuit of the stolen masterpieces. Perhaps too ashamed to acknowledge that the paintings had been ruined while in his possession, or more likely worried about the consequences that might stem from such an admission, Gentile held firm. “I don’t know anything,” he said.
On the scene were Anthony Amore (blue shirt), security director of the Gardner museum, and Brian Kelly, then assistant US attorney.
“THAT DAY RUINED MY LIFE FOREVER,” Gentile told me, sitting in the living room of his modest ranch-style home that he’s lived in for years with his wife and two children. He had been home from federal prison for a week, and our conversation was the first time he has ever spoken publicly. I’d written to Gentile while he was serving a 30-month sentence in federal prison in Otisville, New York, and had asked him if I could visit him in prison to talk about his case and the authorities’ interest in his ties to the Gardner heist. He wrote back: “Wait until I get home in January, and call my house.”
In fact it could have been a lot worse for Gentile. Assistant US Attorney John Durham had asked that Gentile be sentenced to 46 to 57 months in prison, a term recommended by the sentencing guidelines. But US District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny appeared to heed McGuigan’s insistence in court that investigators had focused on Gentile to squeeze him on the Gardner investigation. As a result Chatigny said that Gentile’s poor health and that of his wife deserved to be considered. He set Gentile’s prison term at 30 months. Emerging from the courtroom, McGuigan said, “Mr. Gentile is pleased with the sentence. He thinks it is fair.” Durham refused comment.
In late January 2014, I drove to Gentile’s Connecticut home and introduced myself. Although he still walked with the help of a cane, he looked more rested and cleareyed than when I’d seen him in court. Gentile said he needed the cane because he was still in pain from a long-ago back injury. He wore a bracelet on his ankle to ensure he complied with the terms of his probation, that he remain inside his house for three months after his release.
We talked for a long time. Gentile answered all of my questions, casting doubt on the FBI’s belief that he was the last person to know the whereabouts of the Gardner masterpieces. “They set me up, and they ruined my life,” he said. “My daughter died while I was in jail. Prison officials wouldn’t even let me visit her before she died. And when I got out I found out the $950 a month I’d been receiving in Social Security benefits had been cut off because I’d been convicted of a federal crime.”
Gentile gave me the key to his shed. Yes, he admitted, he kept valuables in containers in the ditch beneath the false floor. But only pieces of equipment or small motors that he had bought. Nothing illegal or stolen, and certainly not the Gardner paintings. I bundled up and crunched through the snow in his backyard and opened the shed’s doors. A new wooden floor had replaced the one the feds dug up, but the large plastic bins his son Bobby had described to the investigators were still inside. Some were filled with hoses, others with yard equipment. None seemed large enough to have held the tubes that could have contained large paintings.
ALTHOUGH ROBERT GENTILE was never identified by name, it was clear he was at the center of the bombshell announcement that Richard S. DesLauriers, then head of the FBI’s Boston office, made in March 2013, on the 23d anniversary of the Gardner Museum theft. “With a high degree of confidence we believe those responsible for the theft were members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England,” he told the assembled press.
DesLauriers stressed that while his agents had had no good leads about the artwork in more than a decade, their investigation had made them certain the works had been brought to Connecticut and then Philadelphia. DesLauriers’s remarks made front-page news around the world. For the first time since the 1990 theft the FBI had given details, scant though they were, about what their years of investigation had uncovered. After more than 20 years of chasing false leads, whether provided by outright liars or others chasing the reward of the century, the FBI finally had information they felt strong enough to announce to the world. That they had determined who the robbers were and had tracked the stolen artwork to Connecticut and Philadelphia was remarkable. That they weren’t releasing more details of the identities of those involved, they said firmly, had more to do with the sensitivity of the investigation than its certainty.
While no one had been named as a suspect at DesLauriers’s press conference, newspapers including The Boston Globe and Hartford Courant were soon quoting sources familiar with the investigation, putting names to those said to be involved: David A. Turner, orchestrating the theft; Robert Guarente, in charge of hiding the stolen masterpieces; and then Gentile as the fence.
Ample information allowed enterprising reporters to connect the dots DesLauriers laid out. Turner, a Braintree High School graduate with ties to the Rossetti criminal gang of East Boston and to Boston thief Louis Royce, who used to sneak into the Gardner to sleep, knew of the museum’s vulnerability to theft. Turner had appreciated that Guarente had treated him like a son and had great respect for the aging mobster’s deep ties to organized crime. Guarente and Gentile were close, and Gentile readily acknowledged that he’d cooked for weekend high-roller card games that Guarente organized at a house in Waltham, but did not know that Guarente had used the place as a base for his cocaine-trafficking operation in the late 1990s.
As for the FBI, DesLauriers hoped the announcement would have two immediate reactions that might lead to a breakthrough. First, that the public would take his advice and look in their attics and garages to see if anything had been hidden there. And second, that someone in the underworld, who might have had secret information on the paintings, would make a call that would be picked up on one of the FBI’s many standing wiretaps.
On March 18, 2013, Richard DesLauriers, then head of the FBI’s Boston office, announced that agents knew who had pulled off the theft. He asked for the public’s help in recovering the art.
The announcement created tremendous media attention and brought numerous calls to Boston’s FBI office. But within a month all had been followed up to no avail, and the sense of an inevitable recovery soon faded. By that time the public’s attention, not to mention that of DesLauriers and every other FBI agent assigned to the Boston office, had rightfully shifted to another case: the Boston Marathon bombing. The FBI’s press person began referring to the Gardner announcement as a “publicity event,” and both DesLauriers and the head of the FBI’s criminal division declined to answer questions on how credible the information in their “significant investigative process” had actually been.
In fact, the lines connecting the dots set out by DesLauriers were blurry and full of gaps. And the most important unexplained link was Philadelphia. Only a circumstantial case could be built that would tie Gentile to Philadelphia, though, I found, it did involve his ties to Guarente.
The cocaine that Guarente was indicted for trafficking in 1999 had allegedly come from the Merlino crime family in Philadelphia, and both Guarente and Robert Luisi Jr., his partner in the cocaine ring, were alleged to be made members of the Merlino crime family. Luisi himself was entrenched in Boston’s mob scene. In a grisly public scene that ranks among the nastiest in Boston’s history, Luisi’s father, half brother, and cousin were gunned down by another reputed mob member in 1995 while having lunch at the Ninety Nine Restaurant in Charlestown. Several years later, Luisi and Guarente were indicted for being part of a ring that was selling cocaine throughout Boston. “I drove Luisi to Philadelphia,” Gentile admitted to me that day at his house. But it had nothing to do with any cocaine dealings, he said.
Gentile said he had driven Luisi to Philadelphia on several occasions as Luisi was looking to expand his loan-sharking operations — but not cocaine — to Philadelphia, and he needed permission of Carmello Merlino, whose Dorchester auto body garage was investigated for possible ties to the museum heist, and his top guys. Could the topic of the Gardner paintings have come up while he was in the car with Luisi or meeting with the Merlino gang in Philadelphia? I asked Gentile. “I didn’t speak to Luisi — or anyone else in Philadelphia — about the Gardner paintings during our drives,” Gentile said. “Why would I talk to them about that?”
But there is little doubt that Luisi was talking to the federal authorities about his conversations with Gentile. When called before a federal grand jury, Luisi testified that Gentile had spoken to him about the possibility of putting a crew together to knock over armored car deliveries to and from the Foxwoods casino. Did he also talk about the Gardner case and Gentile? Luisi isn’t saying. After initially agreeing to continue to cooperate with federal investigators in their probe of the Boston underworld, Luisi pulled back, testifying that he had “found Jesus” and wanted to serve out his time in prison counseling others. Luisi was later released when his conviction was overturned on appeal, but whether he had spoken about the Gardner paintings with Gentile and mob leaders in Philadelphia could not be determined, as he did not return phone calls.
Gentile has stayed mum and since being released from federal prison in early 2014 hasn’t assisted the authorities or the museum in its quest to regain its stolen paintings. He’s bitter over his treatment by federal investigators after he declined to cooperate with them.
Although hopes for a recovery ran high in 2013 — after the FBI announcement that agents knew who had pulled off the theft — the call for the public’s help has led to no breakthrough. Instead, the likelihood of returning the paintings to their still-empty places within the museum seems as remote today as it did in 2010, when the lead FBI agent on the case told me that “in the last 20 years, and the last eight that I’ve had the case, there hasn’t been a concrete sighting, or real proof of life.”
Stephen Kurkjian, a former Globe investigative reporter and editor, has been covering the Gardner heist for nearly 20 years. Send comments to email@example.com.
Excerpted from “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist” by Stephen Kurkijan. Available from PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist: 25 Years of Theories
BOSTON — The hallway in the Brooklyn warehouse was dark, the space cramped. But soon there was a flashlight beam, and I was staring at one of the most sought-after stolen masterpieces in the world: Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
Or was I?
My tour guide that night in August 1997 was a rogue antiques dealer who had been under surveillance by the F.B.I. for asserting he could secure return of the painting — for a $5 million reward. I was a reporter at The Boston Herald, consumed like many people before me and since with finding the “Storm,” a seascape with Jesus and the Apostles, and 12 other works, including a Vermeer and a Manet, stolen in March 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a cherished institution here.
The theft was big news then and remains so today as it nears its 25th anniversary. The stolen works are valued at $500 million, making the robbery the largest art theft in American history.
Which explains why I found myself in Brooklyn, 200 miles from the scene of the crime, tracking yet another lead. My guide had phoned me suggesting he knew something of the robbery, and he had some street credibility because he was allied with a known two-time Rembrandt thief. He took me into a storage locker and flashed his light on the painting, specifically at the master’s signature, on the bottom right of the work, where it should have been, and abruptly ushered me out.
The entire visit had taken all of two minutes.
Call me Inspector Clouseau — I’ve been called worse in this matter, including a “criminal accomplice” by a noted Harvard law professor — but I felt certain I was feet from the real thing, that the Rembrandt, and perhaps all the stolen art, would soon be home. I wrote a front-page article about the furtive unveiling for The Herald — with a headline that bellowed “We’ve Seen It!” — and stood by for the happy ending.
It never came. Negotiations between investigators and the supposed art-nappers crumbled amid dislike and suspicion. Gardner officials did not dismiss my “viewing” out of hand, but the federal agents in charge back then portrayed me as a dupe. Eighteen years later, I still wonder whether what I saw that night was a masterpiece or a masterly effort to con an eager reporter.
Federal agents today continue to discount my warehouse viewing. (They say they have figured out the identity of my guide, but I promised him anonymity.) Still, the authorities are intrigued by some paint chips I also received in 1997 from people claiming to control the art. I wrote at the time that they were possibly from the Rembrandt, but the F.B.I. quickly announced that tests showed that they bore no relationship to the “Storm.”
In a recent interview, though, F.B.I. officials told me that the chips had been re-examined in 2003 by Hubert von Sonnenburg, a Vermeer expert who was chairman of painting conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Mr. von Sonnenburg died the next year.)
His tests determined the chips were an exact match for a pigment known as “red lake” that was commonly used by the 17th-century Dutch master and had been used in the stolen Vermeer (“The Concert”). The crackling pattern on the chips was similar to that found on other Vermeers, Mr. von Sonnenburg concluded, according to the authorities.
Perplexed? Me, too.
Such have been the vicissitudes in my coverage of the case for nearly two decades, during which I have gathered hundreds of investigative documents and photos, interviewed scores of criminals and crackpots, and met with dozens of federal and municipal law enforcement officials and museum executives.
In 2011, I wrote a book about art theft with the Gardner’s chief of security, Anthony M. Amore. We omitted the Gardner case because Mr. Amore said the hunt had reached a delicate phase.
Four years later, his quarry remains elusive. But it turns out that the assumptions that he and the F.B.I. special agent now overseeing the case, Geoff Kelly, were forming then became their active theory of the heist. The short version: It was the handiwork of a bumbling confederation of Boston gangsters and out-of-state Mafia middlemen, many now long dead.
Admittedly, that is far less startling than other theories floated over the years, which attributed the theft to Vatican operatives, Irish Republican Army militants, Middle Eastern emirs and greedy billionaires. And new deductions pop up all the time, like those in a book due out this month that combines elements of the F.B.I. theory with a few twists.
Before I get into the theories, though, some background: The Gardner museum was created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy Boston arts patron who amassed a world-class collection of paintings, sculptures, Asian and European antiquities, and curiosities like letters from Napoleon and Beethoven’s death mask. In 1903 she arranged her 2,500 or so treasures inside a just-finished Venetian-style palazzo that became her home and as well as a museum open to the public. Her memorable fiat was that upon her death (in 1924), not one item could be moved from the spot she had chosen to display it.
But after midnight on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day festivities from the day before were winding down, her edict was broken. Two thieves dressed as Boston police officers persuaded a guard to let them in to investigate a “disturbance.” They handcuffed him and another watchman in the basement, duct-taped their wrists and faces and, for 81 minutes, brazenly and clumsily cut two Rembrandts from their frames, smashed glass cases holding other works, and made off with a valuable yet oddball haul.
It included the Rembrandts, Vermeer’s “Concert,” Manet’s “Chez Tortoni,” Degas sketches, a bronze-plated eagle, and a Shang dynasty vase secured to a table by a bulky metal device that by itself probably took 10 minutes to pull apart. Left behind were prizes like a Titian, some Sargents, Raphaels and Whistlers, and, inches from the Degas works, a Pietà sketch by Michelangelo.
Anyone who expected the art to appear rapidly on the black market or to be used for some kind of ransom was disappointed. Instead, there was dead silence. Seven years later, the museum raised its reward to $5 million from $1 million. After a quarter-century, empty frames still mark where the missing “Storm” and other works once were on display.
Early on, investigators focused on Myles J. Connor Jr., a career Massachusetts art thief who, in 1975, had stolen a Rembrandt from the Museum of Fine Arts here and used it to bargain himself out of prison time. Mr. Connor himself came forward in 1997 with an associate, William P. Youngworth III, to say he had planned the Gardner heist. Though he had been in jail when it took place, Mr. Connor insisted it mirrored a scheme he devised in the 1980s. He said he had cased the museum with a fellow thief, telling him he wanted to own the Chinese vase that was so laboriously stolen.
Information from Mr. Connor and Mr. Youngworth ultimately led to my dark trip through that Brooklyn warehouse, and later to the puzzling paint chips. But when Mr. Connor left federal prison in 2005, he failed to produce the paintings and investigators have long ruled him out.
Even easier to dismiss was the notion that the Boston crime boss James (Whitey) Bulger was involved. Mr. Bulger was a predictable target for suspicion because of his decades of involvement in murders, drug running and funneling arms to the I.R.A. But there was nothing to connect him, the authorities say.
In a book due out this month, “Master Thieves,” Stephen Kurkjian, a Boston Globe reporter who has tracked the case as long as I have, says that another lifelong Boston crook, Louis Royce, dreamed up the robbery. Mr. Kurkjian interviewed Mr. Royce and quotes him as saying his criminal associates stole his idea. The investigators say Mr. Royce’s tale is unsupported by the evidence. In his book, Mr. Kurkjian says he provided other information to the investigators including a possible motive for the theft — to exchange the masterpieces for the release from prison of a Boston mob leader.
Anticipating a wave of interest, and possible criticism, on the eve of the robbery’s 25th anniversary, the investigators, Mr. Amore and Mr. Kelly, recently showed me a PowerPoint presentation that detailed their best sense of what happened.
Though the efficacy of their efforts remains unclear, Mr. Amore, who was hired by the Gardner in 2005, and Mr. Kelly, who has his own museum identification badge, have spent a decade sharing tips and chasing leads. In one peculiar instance, they said, they approached the producers of the television show “Monk” in the mid-2000s because a tipster spotted a painting that looked like “The Concert” in the background of a scene. The painting turned out to be only a copy used as a prop.
Mr. Amore and Mr. Kelly’s current theory dates to 1997, when informants told the F.B.I. that they had heard a midlevel mob associate and garage supervisor from Quincy, Mass., Carmello Merlino, talk about trading the stolen art for the $5 million reward.
In 1998, the F.B.I., as part of a sting, arrested Mr. Merlino and some associates on their way to an armored car depot and carrying heavy weapons, including grenades. Investigators said that they promised him leniency if he helped them find the art but that he denied knowing of its whereabouts.
Several years later, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Amore said, informants drew their attention to two associates of Mr. Merlino, George A. Reissfelder and Leonard V. DiMuzio.
Mr. DiMuzio, who was shot to death in 1991, was a skillful burglar who had long been involved with the Merlino gang. The investigators say that Mr. Reissfelder, who died of an apparent drug overdose the same year, owned a 1986 red Dodge Daytona, the same model of car that several witnesses have said they spotted idling outside the Gardner on the night of the break-in. The two passengers in the Daytona, the witnesses said, were dressed as Boston police officers.
In addition, the investigators said, two members of Mr. Reissfelder’s family have said they saw the Gardner’s stolen Manet on Mr. Reissfelder’s apartment wall three months after the robbery — a brazen act, to be sure. The investigators called it a “confirmed sighting.”
The investigators said they believed there had been a second sighting of one of the stolen items, though I’m sad to say it was not my encounter in the warehouse. A tipster, they said, told them in 2009 that he had seen a work resembling “Storm” in Philadelphia.
Two years ago, at a news conference in Boston aimed a drumming up leads in the case, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Amore outlined this theory but did not identify Mr. Reissfelder or Mr. DiMuzio as suspects. But on his PowerPoint, Mr. Kelly showed me that Mr. Reissfelder and Mr. DiMuzio closely resembled police sketches of the two men who had entered the museum.
Still, those men are now dead. So is Mr. Merlino, who died in prison in 2005, as is Robert Guarente, a reputed Maine mobster suspected of having once harbored some of the art.
Investigators say they are hopeful of locating the trove, even if many of their suspects are now in their graves. They were buoyed, for example, in 2009, when Mr. Guarente’s widow, Elene, told them her husband had turned over some of the stolen art to a reputed Mafia associate, Robert Gentile of Connecticut, in a parking lot in Portland, Me., in 2002.
Investigators searched Mr. Gentile’s home in 2012 and found pistols, ammunition and silencers — but no paintings. Mr. Gentile, who officials say had ties to organized crime figures in Philadelphia, has said he knows nothing about the art.
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Amore say they are convinced that, based on the 2009 sighting and other information, some of the art made its way from Maine to Philadelphia, where it was shopped around.
“The art was seen as too hot, and there were no takers,” Mr. Kelly said.
What happens now? The investigators keep looking.
“Mrs. Gardner would have expected us to battle every day to get back her art,” Mr. Amore said.
Mr. Kelly said he rejected the notion that the art was destroyed by the thieves as soon as they realized they had “unwittingly committed the crime of the century.”
“That rarely happens in art thefts,” Mr. Kelly continued. “Most criminals are savvy enough to know such valuable paintings are their ace in the hole.”
The biggest art heist of all time is still a complete mystery
BOSTON (Reuters) - A 122-year old Venetian-style palazzo tucked into Boston's marshy Fens section stands as one of the city's more popular tourist attractions and the site of one of its longest-unsolved crimes.
It has been almost 25 years since 13 artworks worth some $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the largest art heist in U.S. history.
The statute of limitations for prosecuting the thieves has long expired but officials at the private museum and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have not given up hope of recovering the missing works, which include including Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Vermeer's "The Concert" and Manet's "Chez Tortoni."
The Gardner's remaining collection is sizable, boasting some 2,500 pieces that range from a Roman mosaic of Medusa to ancient Chinese bronzes, reflecting the eclectic tastes of the turn-of-the-century collector from whom it takes its name.
More unusual are the four empty frames that hang in the galleries. They are a quirk of Gardner's will that turned the building she called home in her final years over to the public as a museum after her 1924 death, on the condition that the collection not be changed.
Anthony Amore, the museum's chief of security, described the empty frames as "placeholders, signs of hope" that the missing art would one day be recovered.
"The investigation is very active and very methodical," said Amore, a former Department of Homeland Security official who has spent much of the past decade trying to track down the missing art. "We need those works."
The mystery dates to the rainy night of March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as police officers arrived at the museum's front door and security guards let them in. The pair allegedly overpowered the guards, who were found duct-taped to chairs in the museum's basement the next morning.
There have been glimmers of hope of solving the crime. In March 2013, FBI officials said they had identified the thieves and asked anyone who seen the missing work, which includes etchings and other historic objects, to come forward.
But a month later Boston law enforcement's attention was refocused on the fatal bombing attack at the Boston Marathon and no artwork has been recovered.
The investigation has taken FBI agents as far afield as Ireland and Japan, but in recent years has been focused on the northeastern and central United States, said Geoff Kelly, the special agent in charge of the case.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Kelly said. "We've been able to narrow the haystack."
ECCENTRIC PATRONGardner's life was as distinctive as her art collection. A native of New York who moved north after marrying businessman Jack Gardner in 1860, she did not comport to the dour standards of the wealthy in 19th century Boston.
Gardner, who had been educated in Paris, served donuts at flamboyant parties and competed with male art collectors for prize pieces. After her first and only child died at the age of 2, the Gardners toured Europe extensively, adding to their collection of art and antiques.
The couple commissioned the building that now houses the museum after their art holdings outgrew their home. The museum opened in 1903, five years after Jack's death.
Her orders that the museum remain unchanged means that, a quarter-century on, the theft is a raw experience for first-time visitors.
"Any other museum would simply paper over the loss and take down the frames and put something else up," said Andrew McClellan, a Tufts University professor specializing in museum history. "At the Gardner, it's a haunting presence that will only ever be healed by the return of the paintings."
Kelly would say little about who the FBI suspects stole the art, other than allude to the Mafia. But he contends the thieves likely were not art connoisseurs, given that they left behind some its most prized pieces, including Titian's "The Rape of Europa."
"These thieves were not sophisticated criminals, as evidenced by the fact that two of the paintings were cut out of their frames," Kelly said. "The significant value of the stolen artwork seems to have elevated the status of the thieves to master criminals but that's a specious assumption."
The author of “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist,” Stephen Kurkjian, also points the way to possibly recovering the missing masterpieces 25 years later. Paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer were among the 13 pieces of work stolen.
But Kurkjian, a 40-year veteran of the Boston Globe with three Pulitzer Prizes to his name, reports the FBI doesn’t seem all that interested in what he’s uncovered.
Empty frames still hang in the galleries where Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and Vermeer’s “The Concert” were on display until the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, when two Boston cops buzzed the security desk at 1:20 a.m. demanding entry.
The guard, Rick Abath, disobeyed strict protocol and let the uniforms in without calling a superior. As the “cops” handcuffed Abath before stowing him and another guard in the basement, the two were informed, “This is a robbery, gentlemen.”
The thieves may have been polite to the guards, but they were brutal to the masterpieces. In 88 minutes they tore through the museum, throwing the paintings to the marbled floor as they sliced the canvasses from the frames. They knew what they liked, but they didn’t know art, snatching a relatively worthless Chinese vase while leaving behind a priceless Michelangelo drawing and the most valuable painting in the museum, Titian’s “Rape of Europa.”
The FBI seized control of the investigation on the grounds that the artwork would be crossing state lines. Shutting local enforcement out was a mistake many felt. In the raging gang wars of the time, both city and state cops had developed reliable informants deep in its criminal underworld.
In fact, one gangster, a player in the East Boston Rossetti gang, Louis Royce, complained to the author that he was still owed 15% for devising the plan. As a poor Southie kid, he loved the museum so much he would hide away there overnight. As a grownup gangster in the early ’80s, knowing how lax security was, he cased the Gardner with the intention of breaking in.
In gangland, it had become common to use stolen art works of value to bargain for the prison release of a “family” member or a plea deal. While Royce never got to rob the Gardner — he went to prison for another crime — he was instrumental in formulating a scenario where two “cops” show up late at night and order the door open.
The playbook had been written.
Over the years, tantalizing leads would surface. In 1994, museum director Anne Hawley opened a letter that promised the return of the 13 pieces for $2.6 million. If the museum was interested, the Boston Globe had to feature a prominent numeral one in a business story. The paper did so, but the letter writer disappeared after he learned a massive alert had gone out to law enforcement.
In 1997, William Youngworth, a career criminal and associate of the master art thief, Myles Connor Jr., took Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg on a long ride to a warehouse in Red Hook, where he produced a painting that looked a lot like Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” Whether or not the painting was authentic remains in question. What’s conclusive is that the FBI finally quit talking to Youngsworth when they got nowhere.
Hawley was so desperate she reached out to the Vatican to ask Pope John Paul II to issue a papal appeal. She also approached William Bulger, president of the state Senate, asking that he chat up his brother Whitey to see what he knew.
The notorious gangster was fruitlessly chasing leads himself. The heist had happened in his territory and he figured he was owed tribute.
Two decades passed, and even with a $5 million reward, never mind the tremendous criminal bargaining power attached to the return of the paintings, no one anted up.
In March 2013, the FBI held what was considered a bombshell press conference. Richard S. DesLauriers, the head of Boston’s FBI, announced they knew with certainty that the art had traveled to Connecticut and the Philadelphia area. There was, the author notes, a troubling lack of detail.
The FBI didn’t name names. Catching the thieves wasn’t the point any longer. The statute of limitations had expired, and getting the art back was now the game.
The FBI had seen the value of crowdsourcing after a tip led to the arrest of Whitey Bulger. This was essentially an appeal to the public to check their attics, or their neighbors’ walls, for a Rembrandt.
Those in the know quickly pieced together the FBI scenario for the heist. Its investigation fingered key members of Frank (Cadillac Frank) Salemme’s gang that the Rossettis owed allegiance to. While Kurkjian doesn’t dismiss the feds’ version out of hand, he makes quick work of its many holes.
Meanwhile, Kurkjian, whose reporting helped solve two previous art thefts, took a “deep dive into the inner works of Boston’s notorious underworld and gained the trust of some of its most flamboyant and pivotal figures.” It was a netherworld the FBI hadn’t been able to penetrate.
Vincent Ferrara was in the top echelon of a mob faction warring with Salemme for control of the New England underworld. But in 1992, Ferraro went to prison for 20 years on a murder rap that would later be overturned.
When his wheelman, Bobby Donati, visited shortly after he’d been locked up, the future looked long and grim.
A secret informant told Kurkjian the details of that visit.
“I can’t let you stay here,” Donati told Ferrara. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
Donati toured the museum several times in the company of the master art thief Connor. Shortly before the robbery, he also showed up at a social club, The Shack, carrying a large paper bag that ripped open, and police uniforms fell out.
“Was that you?” Ferrara demanded to know when Donati visited him again after the robbery.
“I told you I was going to do it. Now I got to find a way to begin negotiating to get you out.” He reassured Ferrara he had “buried the stuff.”
Donati was murdered in 1991, a possible victim in the ongoing gang wars.
Kurkjian turned his info over to the FBI, and with the informant’s permission, passed his phone number to the Gardner’s head of security. No contact was made, and the feds made a show of dismissing the new lead.
Kurkjian’s sleuthing then brought him around to another low-level hood, Robert Gentile, the man the FBI believed had possession of at least some of the paintings. After nailing Gentile on a drug charge, they raided his home in Manchester, Conn., finding a false-bottom floor in the shed that hid a large container. It was frustratingly empty.
At one moment, Kurkjian felt Gentile was close to making an admission to him before abruptly dismissing the possibility of saying more. “The feds set me up and ruined my life,” he said flatly.
Kurkjian contacted his informant to ask if Ferrara would meet with Gentile to assure him that if he produced the artwork neither he nor his family would suffer retribution. The informant was willing, but pointed out that only a judge acting on an FBI request could allow a recently released federal prisoner like Ferrara to meet with anyone convicted of a federal offense.
“Despite what felt like the biggest break in the Gardner case yet, arranging a meeting between Ferrara and Gentile was not something I could accomplish,” Kurkjian writes.
It was up to the FBI.
So far, nothing.
Anne Hawley, who has led the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston for 25 years and oversaw an expansion that opened in 2012, more than doubling the museum’s footprint and increasing attendance, announced Wednesday that she planned to step down at the end of the year.
Ms. Hawley was appointed in 1989, only a few months before one of the most famous art heists in history occurred at the museum. In March 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers made off with 13 works, among them a Vermeer and a Rembrandt, a robbery that – despite some leads – remains unsolved as its 25th anniversary approaches.
During Ms. Hawley’s tenure, the museum – which was beloved but seen as something of a dusty relic – has become known for its historical and contemporary exhibitions and its educational outreach, as well as its music and horticultural programs. The $114 million expansion, designed by Renzo Piano, was opposed by some Bostonians, who believed it contravened the wishes of the institution’s founder to keep the Gardner preserved largely as it was at her death in 1924. But a 2009 state court ruling allowed the museum to deviate from Gardner’s will to create the addition. The demolition of a carriage house on the property, to make way for the expansion, was carried out over the protests of preservationists.
In an interview Wednesday, Ms. Hawley, 71, said that the museum had been founded “as a total work of art in itself” and that her goal as director was to “to bring back the dynamic life that its founder had made when she built this place.” After recently completing a $180 million fund-raising campaign for the expansion and the museum’s endowment, Ms. Hawley said she felt it was an appropriate time for new leadership. The museum has formed a committee to find a successor.
“It’s really surprising to me that I’ve stayed so long,” she said. “It’s just the right time for me to step aside when I feel that everything is fantastic and I’m at the top of my game.” She added that she had no desire to run another museum, but wanted to “be able to focus on projects and to study and just to have time.”
Walter Liedtke, Curator at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dies at 69
Walter Liedtke, who served for 35 years as a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was a renowned scholar on Vermeer and the Delft School, died on Tuesday, one of six victims of the crash of a Metro-North commuter train in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 69.
His death was confirmed by the Met’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, who said in an interview that “he was one of our most esteemed curators and one of the most distinguished scholars of Dutch and Flemish painting in the world.”
Mr. Liedtke, who lived in Bedford Hills, N.Y., and was raised in New Jersey, intended to be a teacher, and after earning his master’s degree at Brown and a doctorate at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, he spent four years on the faculty at Ohio State. But in 1979 he received a Mellon Fellowship to study at the Metropolitan Museum, and he never left it.
The next year he became a curator and began producing a procession of well-regarded exhibitions and books over the decades, including “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art” in 1995 and 1996; “Vermeer and the Delft School” in 2001, and “The Age of Rembrandt” in 2007.
His catalog of Flemish paintings in the Met’s collection was published in 1984, and a comprehensive catalog of the museum’s Dutch paintings, presented over more than a thousand pages, was published in 2007.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who knew and sometimes jousted curatorially with Mr. Liedtke for three decades, said that while Mr. Liedtke was a natural writer, “he really liked to lecture.”
“He had a wonderful way with words and engaged people through those unexpected approaches in language,” Mr. Wheelock said. “He had strong opinions about things, and he was not shy about expressing those opinions.”
Mr. Liedtke and his wife, Nancy, a math teacher, who is his only immediate survivor, raised horses, a passion that Mr. Liedtke brought to his scholarly life as well. His book “The Royal Horse and Rider: Painting, Sculpture and Horsemanship 1500-1800” was published in 1990.
“I think there is something Dutch about the way I live,” he said in a personal reflection that he recorded for the Met’s website. “To go home every day from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the countryside is a really nice contrast.”
He added: “At the essential level, I think what’s the most Dutch about it is this constant return to immediate experience. I get up, I go to the barn, I clean the horse stalls at 6:30 in the morning.”
Mr. Campbell said that Mr. Liedtke frequently caught the train that he took on Tuesday and that he liked to ride in the first car because it was sometimes the designated quiet car, where he could read and work.
While Mr. Liedtke loved the life of the country, Mr. Campbell added, “he was one of our great characters, always immaculately turned out in his suits, and he was very much an Old World connoisseur who trained in very profound study of the object.”
In a short online discussion recorded in 2013 about Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” (1653), Mr. Liedtke marveled at how an artist could so movingly capture the kind of existential moment the painting shows, as Aristotle, dressed like a pasha, looks at a representation of Homer and wonders whether history will remember him as well.
“The central problem of Western civilization,” Mr. Liedtke said, “is reduced to one guy who’s got to puzzle it out for himself.”
Of the meaning of the painting, which was one of his favorites, he added: “I sort of got it in my gut or my heart.”