FBI Says They Know Who Pulled Off the Gardner Heist

Photo of empty frame in the Garner Museum (thieves cut paintings from their frames)

Photo of empty frame in the Garner Museum (thieves cut paintings from their frames)

There was exciting news in Boston today!

The Boston office of the FBI held a press conference to announce that they strongly believe they have identified the culprits who stole 13 paintings worth $500 million from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum 23 years ago today. The Boston Globe reports:

The officials also said they had determined where the artworks had traveled in the years after the robbery, which is considered the greatest art theft in history. But the officials said they did not know where they were now and were appealing to the public for their help in finding them.

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence in the years after the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft. With that confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England,” Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the FBI, said.

DesLauriers said that after the attempted sale of the paintings about a decade ago, the FBI did not know where the artworks — which included three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a portrait by Edouard Manet, and sketches by Renoir — had been taken.

They refused to reveal the names of the culprits while the investigation is still ongoing. The FBI decided to hold the press conference on the anniversary of the art theft–the largest such heist in history–in order to ask for help from the public. They no longer know the location of the paintings and they hope that someone will come forward, as happened when they request help in finding Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.

According to the Hartford Courant, the FBI

disclosed new detail about their interest in Hartford mobster Robert Gentile….They…would not answer specific questions about Gentile, a 75-year-old gambler and confidence man long associated with the rackets in Hartford. The officials said that, to discuss Gentile or other suspects, could jeopardize the continuing investigation.

But since 2010, Gentile has been questioned repeated about his membership in the Boston branch of a Philadelphia-based criminal organization, as well as leads that place at least some of the stolen paintings in Connecticut and the Philadelphia area.

DesLauriers said he doesn’t know what happened to the art after it was transported to Philadelphia.

The FBI, Boston’s U.S. Attorney and the museum’s security chief released surprising detail at a Boston press conference followed around the world about what for years had been a largely fruitless investigation. The officials were looking for a jolt of publicity to generate new leads in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The officials also referred repeatedly to a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the art….

Although the officials refused to discuss Gentile by name, the information the FBI released about who robbed the museum and how the stolen art was moved years later corresponds closely with their theories about Gentile’s involvement in the crime. The officials also said, without explaining why, that the investigation has been particularly active since 2010, which is when they first questioned Gentile.

Gentile is currently in jail for selling prescription painkillers. After his arrest, his home was searched, but no stolen paintings were found–just lots of drugs, money, and weapons.

Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," stolen from the Gardner Museum

Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” stolen from the Gardner Museum

Here’s some background on the Gardner Heist and the long investigation from a 2005 article in The Boston Globe.

As they struggled to remove a heavy-framed Rembrandt from the silk-draped wall of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the two thieves abruptly stopped as a high-pitched alarm beeped from the baseboard.

They must have been startled.

But not for long. Intended to alert guards when museum visitors ventured too close to the art, the alarm was quickly hunted down by the men. They smashed it silent and went back to work on what remains, 15 years after that misty March night in 1990, the biggest art heist in history.

The warning beeper proved to be the only part of the museum’s security system that deterred the men at all. They would spend 81 minutes moving through the darkened galleries of the Italianate mansion Mrs. Jack Gardner built at the turn of the century to house her private art collection and share it with the public; they could have stayed all night.

The men got into the museum by dressing as Boston police officers and convincing the guard on duty, Richard Abath, to let them in because they had been called about a disturbance. They then tied up Abath and another security guard and handcuffed them in the basement.

Once inside, the thieves ripped a Vermeer, three Rembrandts — including his only seascape — five Degas drawings, and a Manet from their wall placements, smashing them out of their frames and leaving shards of glass and remnants of canvas behind. The thieves took some of the museum’s greatest treasures but left behind some even more valuable objects.

When they were done for the night, they made two trips to their car with the loot. Then they vanished.

Where the paintings were, empty frames now fill the museum’s walls.

Richard Abath in 2013

Richard Abath in 2013

Abath was 23, a student at the Berklee School of Music and a rock musician who worked nights as a security guard at the museum. He wasn’t a suspect at first–he even passed two polygraph tests, but today he’s being looked at as a possible accessory to the crime.

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.

It would be incredible if the paintings could be recovered! It would far more thrilling than finding Whitey Bulger. The statute of limitations on the theft has already run out, and anyone who came forward would likely be given immunity for revealing the location(s) of the artwork. According to the Boston Herald,

The FBI stressed that anyone with information about the artwork may contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL FBI (1-800-225-5324) or the museum directly or through a third party, said Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, who is the lead investigator for the theft and a member of the art crime team, “In the past, people who realize they are in possession of stolen art have returned the art in a variety of ways, including through third parties, attorneys and anonymously leaving items in churches or at police stations.” Tips may also be submitted online athttps://tips.fbi.gov.

The publicity campaign announced today includes a dedicated FBI website on the Gardner Museum theft, video postings on FBI social media sites, publicity on digital billboards in Philadelphia region, and a podcast. To view and listen to these items, link to the FBI’s new website about the theft: www.FBI.gov/gardner.

Below are photos of some of the missing paintings. See more at Time Magazine.

Vermeer, "The Concert"

Vermeer, “The Concert”

Degas, "La Sortie de Pesage"

Degas, “La Sortie de Pesage”

Manet, "Chez Tortoni"

Manet, “Chez Tortoni”

Govaert Flinck, "Landscape with Obelisk"

Govaert Flinck, “Landscape with Obelisk”

26 Comments on “FBI Says They Know Who Pulled Off the Gardner Heist”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    You can used this as an open thread if you want. I was so excited about this, I had to post it!

    • This is great BB, just able to log onto the ol’ circle box…did you all see this: Troubled Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Hit by Power Outage

      An unexplained partial power outage has shut down a crucial cooling system at Japan’s tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

      The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), says equipment used to inject cooling water into spent fuel pools has been without electricity since Monday night, local time. TEPCO is investigating whether a broken switchboard is to blame for the outage.

      TEPCO spokesperson Masayuki Ono told reporters Tuesday pool temperatures had risen slightly. But he said even the worst-affected reactor would remain safe for at least four days at the current rates.

      “We believe there is still plenty of time before the temperature in the pools exceeds what we regard as the danger level of 65 degrees, so before that happens we will be doing our best to restore power.”

      Ono says TEPCO has a backup plan to inject cooling water into the pools if power cannot be restored within that timeframe.

      There is a danger of radiation spewing into the environment if the water in the spent fuel pools reaches boiling point. So far there has been no change in radioactivity levels.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    Here’s another long article about the robbery in Art News: Inside the Gardner Case (2009)

  3. bostonboomer says:

    Another suspect in the heist: Myles Connor, “notorious art thief”

    Arrested in Rhode Island last summer, he said he would try to broker the return of the paintings, but nothing came of it so far.

  4. List of X says:

    This exciting, maybe I’ll finally get to see the ISB museum without those empty spots on the wall.

  5. RalphB says:

    Gazprom Offers Cyprus Restructuring Deal to Avoid EU Bailout

    Russian energy giant Gazprom has offered the Republic of Cyprus a plan in which the company will undertake the restructuring of the country’s banks in exchange for exploration rights for natural gas in Cyprus’’ exclusive economic zone, local media reported.

    Representatives of the Russian company submitted the proposal to the office of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades on Sunday evening, Sigma TV reported.

    I don’t know if this would be better but it may give Cyprus some room to negotiate with the EU?

  6. bostonboomer says:

    Some of the unanswered questions:

    Why were the thieves so comfortable that they could stay in the museum for 81 minutes knowing that no other alarm would be triggered?

    Why didn’t they go to the third floor and take Titian’s Rape of Europa, which Peter Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a distinguished scholar, calls “arguably the greatest painting in America”?

    Why did the thieves steal mainly Dutch and French works?

    Was the theft arranged by the Irish Republican Army to raise money or bargain for the release of jailed comrades? Are the paintings now in Ireland, as some private investigators believe?

    Do the thieves still have the works or did they pass them on to others?


    Among those questioned by the bureau: American drug lords, ex-museum guards, and Japanese underworld figures. An FBI agent flew with a colleague to Paris to discuss with French prosecutors a tip that a discredited French tycoon had bought the Rembrandts. The FBI reportedly put an undercover informant in the jail cell of a suspect in the theft. But the suspect didn’t cooperate.

    • RalphB says:

      Odds are the thieves were not art critics and stole what they felt would sell best. They may have had a list of what to take, if some were pre-fenced among shady dealers. Thieves are not usually high brow collectors so, if they weren’t passed on I’d be surprised.

      • bostonboomer says:

        The FBI seems pretty sure that the thieves were New England gangsters.

      • RalphB says:

        That would be pretty classic really. From their perspective the robbery could have been of paintings or gold bars, just as long as it could be fenced.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Gold bars would be a lot easier to fence than famous paintings. To sell the paintings they would have to find someone who would keep the artwork hidden or take it to a country where they couldn’t be extradited.

        The FBI had info that the paintings were offered for sale in Philadelphia but they don’t think they were ever sold.

  7. RalphB says:

    Researcher gets 41 months in jail for revealing AT&T’s iPad security hole

    Speaking of crime, another clusterfuck that reveals how hosed our legal system really is now.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Oh for heaven’s sake! Banksters can be prosecuted but these penny-ante “criminals” get the book thrown at them.

      • boogieman7167 says:

        hmmm lets see in the if that statute of limitations has run out . I guess there nothing they can do to anyone even if they do find them

      • bostonboomer says:

        There could be charges based on having the stolen property. Mainly they just want the paintings back. There’s also the $5 million reward that could go to whoever helps get them back.

    • boogieman7167 says:

      it would be nice foe the FBI to t those artworks . but after all this time in think there long gone .

  8. bostonboomer says:

    The Simpsons had an episode last year in which Mr. Burns had Vermeer’s The Concert.

  9. JoelAK says:

    Do they still think Whitey Bulger was involved, or had knowledge of the heist? Did he spill what he knew while in custody? Hmmm….

    • bostonboomer says:

      Some investigators think he was involved. It seems possible, considering how powerful he was in the Boston underworld. If he knew something, that would certainly help him. I hope we find out eventually. It would be wonderful if the paintings could be returned to the Gardner.