It was one of the most brazen art thefts in history. Two thieves, posing as police officers, prevailed on the night watchman at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to let them in. After tying him up, and a leisurely 81 minutes, they walked out with 13 works of art and into the annals of one of the world’s most infamous unsolved crimes.
Two paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which provided images of the works, are Vermeer’s “The Concert,” left, and Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black.”
MThe theft, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet and Degas, were valued at $500 million. It remains the largest property crime in American history.
On Monday, 23 years to the day after the theft, federal officials announced that they knew the identities of the thieves and said they belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States.
The officials did not identify the thieves further, saying the investigation was continuing. They did say they believed they had traced the paintings to Connecticut and to the Philadelphia area a decade ago, but those trails had since grown cold.
“Today, we are pleased to announce that the F.B.I. has made significant investigative progress in the search for the stolen art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Boston office, said at a news conference.
The announcement on Monday appeared timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 1990 theft rather than because of any recently unearthed information. But Mr. DesLauriers said the investigation was nearing its “final chapter.” And Carmen Ortiz, a United States attorney who also attended the news conference, said: “I think we’re all optimistic that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place.”
Mr. DesLauriers said the F.B.I. was starting a publicity campaign to focus attention on the paintings in the hopes of garnering leads from the public and possibly from acquaintances of the thieves, anyone who may have glimpsed one of the paintings over a mantel, say, or in an attic. In addition to the paintings, the stolen cache included a Chinese bronze beaker and a finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag.
The F.B.I. intends to put up billboards with the paintings in Connecticut and Philadelphia. And they have redesigned a page at the agency’s Web site at www.FBI.gov/gardner, creating the jarring image of stunning art works in a spot normally reserved for the mugs of the nation’s most wanted criminals.
“We’ve determined in the years after the theft that the art was transported to the Connecticut and Philadelphia regions,” Mr. DesLauriers said. “But we haven’t identified where the art is right now, and that’s why we are asking the public for help.” The splashy announcement, somewhat unusual when the identities of the suspects are known but not revealed, was designed to draw worldwide attention, he said, beyond the confines of Boston.
Bostonians have been obsessed with the case, and the museum reminds its visitors of the theft by keeping the empty frames that once held paintings like Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and Vermeer’s “The Concert” on display. That two large Rembrandt canvases were cut suggested that the thieves were novices in the value of the art. There have been no reports of the paintings having been fenced or sold.
Museum officials on Monday reiterated their promise of a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the works in good condition. “You don’t have to hand us the paintings to be eligible for the reward,” said Anthony Amore, the museum security chief.
Ms. Ortiz said the statute of limitations had run out for the crime of art theft. Someone who had the paintings could still be charged with possession of stolen property, she said, but she also said there was a “very strong possibility” that such a person could receive immunity. Museum officials said their chief goal was to recover the art.
Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly of the F.B.I., who has been in charge of the Gardner investigation for about six years, said the works have most likely changed hands several times over the years. He also said it was possible that people possessing them might be unaware of their significance or that they were stolen.
“It is possible they have been asked at some point to take custody of something and don’t know what they have,” Mr. Kelly said.
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