by Bob Couttie

Twenty three years after American’s biggest art theft some $500 million worth of paintings remain missing and the thieves unidentified despite the jailing of a Philadelphia Mafia made-man and an announcement of new leads by the FBI in March of this year. Also unclaimed is a $5 million reward for the return of the paintings, could it be yours?

The robbery was as simple as it was audacious. On the night of 18 March, 1990 two men dressed as Boston cops arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum claiming they had received a call. An unsuspecting museum security guard let them in through the museum’s security door. It was a breach of procedure but these were cops.

museOnce inside the fake cops claimed they recognised the security guard as someone for whom there was an outstanding arrest warrant and told him to step away from the guard desk. Doing so meant that the alarm buttons were out of his reach.

Next they asked the guard to call a second guard who was on duty to man the security desk. At the time it seemed to make perfect sense.

The truth became quickly apparent as the fake cops handcuffed the two security guards and took them down to the basement, secured them to pipes and duct-taped their hands, feet and heads.

remyDuring the next hour the thieves selected 13 paintings and ferried them to a vehicle waiting outside. Then they left. The whole operation took 81 minutes.

It was not until the next morning that the trussed guards, and the theft, were discovered by the relief security guard.

To this day the frames of the paintings remain empty. Says Anthony Amore, director of security, Gardner Museum:

”The pieces that were stolen from the Gardner really are the true definition of pricelessness, because they can never be sold, they can never be replaced. So when you lose a piece from this particular collection the museum can’t just go out and acquire another masterpiece to put in its place. It has to remain empty. The spots have to remain unfilled until Mrs. Gardner’s purchases and her items are put back into their proper place in the collection.”

Being priceless and irreplaceable means that the paintings were not insured.

degasAccording to the museum the missing works include: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and a Self Portrait (1634), an etching on paper; Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660); and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638); and a Chinese vase or Ku, all taken from the Dutch Room on the second floor. Also stolen from the second floor were five works on paper by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and a finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag, both from the Blue Room.

vermTo recover stolen items and prosecute art and cultural property crime, the FBI has a specialized Art Crime Team of 14 special agents supported by special trial attorneys. The team investigates theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines, with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually. The FBI also runs the National Stolen Art File, a computerized index of stolen art and cultural properties that is used as a reference by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Today, with the statute of limitations on the theft now expired, the thieves may not be brought to trial even if found. Naming them is considered imprudent. US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz says:

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will consider the possibility of immunity from criminal prosecution for information that leads to the return of the paintings based on the set of facts and circumstances brought to our attention. Our primary goal is, and always has been, to have the paintings returned.”

roomWhen the FBI searched the home of 76-year-old Robert Gentile, allegedly a ‘made-man’ in the Philadelphia Mafia, last year following a tip-off they found a newspaper cutting about the theft and a list of the stolen artwork with estimates of value. There was little they could do, however, except charge him with possession of the illicit guns, ammunition and prescription medicine they also found. Gentile was sent to prison earlier this year claiming to have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the artwork. The polygraph test he failed suggests otherwise.

In March, the FBI announced that new suspects had been identified and launched a media campaign. The FBI believes it has determined where the stolen art was transported in the years after the theft and that it knows the identity of the thieves, Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, revealed for the first time in the 23-year investigation:

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that 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.” DesLauriers added, “With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.”

After the attempted sale, which took place approximately a decade ago, the FBI’s knowledge of the art’s whereabouts is limited.

Someone knows where the artworks are, and if that person is you there’s a cool $5 million waiting for you.

Anthony AmoreAnthony Amore of the Gardner Museum has stated that $5 million reward is for “information that leads directly to the recovery of all of our items in good condition… You don’t have to hand us the paintings to be eligible for the reward. We hope that through this media campaign, people will see how earnest we are in our attempts to pay this reward and make our institution whole. We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It’s time for these paintings to come home.”

FBI Page

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


Click here to see other posts by Bob Couttie:

Murder Among the Asian Angels

The Day I Said No to the French Connection

My First Murder – The Blue Anchor Scandal

Dispatch From Cambodia: Murder In A Sleepy Town

U.S. Navy Cold Case : A Sister’s Persistence Restores the Honor of Murdered Ensign Andrew Lee Muns

The Moors Murderers: Myra Hindley and Ian Brady




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