Clearer Picture of Art Heist
FBI Announces Tips, Reward for Recovery of Works Stolen From Boston in 1990
BOSTON—It has endured as one of the most perplexing mysteries in Boston and the wider art world: Who pulled off the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, stealing 13 artworks worth an estimated $500 million, including rare paintings by Rembrandt, just after 1 a.m. on March 18, 1990.
Among the works stolen from the Gardner museum on March 18, 1990, was Rembrandt’s ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.’
On Monday, the 23rd anniversary of the crime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the first time said it believes the thieves belonged to a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England states. The agency declined to provide further details about the suspects, citing a continuing investigation, but it said it now believes that after the theft, the stolen haul was taken to Philadelphia and Connecticut and then offered for sale in Philadelphia about 10 years ago.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/Associated Press
Among the works stolen from the Gardner museum on March 18, 1990, was Edouard Manet’s ‘Chez Tortoni.’
Although it doesn’t know the current whereabouts of the art, the FBI believes it might still be in the Philadelphia area. So the agency will launch a publicity campaign, soliciting tips using social media and, within a few weeks, putting up digital roadside billboards in and around Philadelphia, where it believes someone may have glimpsed—or even bought—the art without knowing of the tainted origin. The museum is offering a $5 million reward for a tip leading to the recovery. The theft represents the largest property crime in U.S. history, according to the FBI.
“It’s likely over the years that someone, a friend, neighbor or relative, has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed up on the mantle, or stored in the attic. We want that person to call us,” Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said at a news conference.
- The new effort resembles the government’s successful 2011 publicity blitz that cracked Boston’s other famous unsolved mystery. That campaign quickly led authorities to alleged mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger after a 16-year manhunt. Mr. DesLauriers said the FBI is using social media and similar tools more often to enlist the public’s help.
European Pressphoto Agency
FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers spoke in Boston on Monday as the agency announced information on the whereabouts of the art and said it is offering a $5 million reward for a tip leading to the recovery.
Officials made clear that their first goal is recovering the stolen paintings, rather than prosecution. U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the statute of limitations for the actual theft at the Gardner museum had run out. Charges could still be brought for concealing or possessing stolen art, but she said her office would consider immunity in exchange for return of the art.
The Gardner museum, founded by a Boston art patron in 1903, is housed in a 15th century-style Venetian mansion with a lush courtyard and three floors of galleries. In the early-morning heist, two men dressed as police officers bluffed their way in by claiming to be on a legitimate call, the FBI said. The thieves tied up the guards and then spent 81 minutes removing the 13 works of art, authorities said. Among the stolen items: Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert,” one of only 36 Vermeers in existence; two large Rembrandt oil paintings, including the artist’s only known seascape; and sketches by French artist Edgar Degas.
Today, visitors to the Gardner see a vivid reminder of the heist: Several empty frames still hang on the wall in the Dutch Room.
“Whenever a significant piece of art goes missing, we lose an important part of civilization,” Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s chief of security, said Monday. “As [our museum directors say], imagine never hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony again.”
The Gardner theft is believed to be the world’s largest unresolved art heist, said Ulrich Boser, author of “The Gardner Heist,” a book about the crime. The theft exposed the vulnerability of smaller museums, he said. The art market had pressed values of art to “sky high” levels, and after the Gardner heist, many had to rethink security, he said.
Mr. Boser said high-value art attracts criminals but that the loot is difficult to sell without getting caught, and often thieves wind up stashing it. Stolen art does sometimes turn up decades later. Boston FBI authorities recalled Monday that a painting by French artist Paul Cezanne was stolen from Stockbridge, Mass., in 1978—and recovered 21 years later.
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