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.
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.
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.