While researching The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser talked to an informant who suggested, “You should have a sticker put on your book like they put on cigarettes. ‘Warning. The Gardner case ... could be dangerous to your health.’ ”No kidding. Just ask anyone who’s gotten too close. It all started in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as police officers talked their way into Boston’s elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. Despite a $5 million reward (the largest ever offered by a private institution) not one painting has ever been recovered.
In the 19 years since, Boser notes, people involved, “have been hurt, murdered and thrown in jail.” Some experts have become so tantalized that they have spent personal time and money trying to crack the case. (Boser himself, somewhere during 200 interviews and trips to four countries and a dozen states, admits to crossing that “thin, Rubiconic line between passion and obsession.”)
The Gardner theft is the largest unsolved art heist in history. Boser’s book on it has the feel of a speedy ride down a mountain road spiked with hairpin turns. Boser deftly steers readers through a cast of characters ranging from the highest of brow (museum curators and art experts) to the lowest imaginable (thuggish, bottom-feeding gangsters) as he labors hard to drive toward some sort of resolution.
One of the more intriguing things about the book is its exploration of what really happens to purloined masterpieces. Rather than landing in the private collections of crazed billionaires, most become currency for criminals, entering a twilight netherworld of terrorism, weapons and currency exchanges, and shadowy, major-league crime bosses.
Boser, of course, does not solve the crime. But he does make a major discovery with an ease that casts serious doubt on previous investigative efforts – and perhaps further fuels conspiracy theories. Beware, however, of pondering these things too deeply. As one former art fence testified: “[This case] is more addictive than crack.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.