Will the Gardner paintings ever come back? 'Master Thieves' author Stephen Kurkjian says yes

'Master Thieves' author Stephen Kurkjian talks about the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft – the largest art heist in world history.

Stephen Kurkjian, author of 'Master Thieves,' says he'd like to see Boston bring 'the same commitment and resolve' it showed after the 2013 Boston Marathon attacks to recovering the art stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990.

Twenty-five years ago this month, two thieves dressed as police officers stole 13 priceless artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Here, Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, author of "Master Thieves," discusses the still-unsolved case with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe. 

Q. Here's the thing we'd all most like to know: Do you think the paintings will ever come back?

Yes. History tells us that the more valuable the art, the longer it often takes to gain a recovery. With its pledge not to prosecute whoever brings in the stolen pieces, the authorities have sent out the right message that its sole mission is to get the masterpieces back where they belong. And by maintaining its offer of a $5 million reward for the safe return of the stolen pieces, the museum provides a perfect incentive for whoever might hold them or know of their whereabouts to reach out and begin negotiations.

Q. You detail many reasons in your book for the failure to return the paintings. But could you narrow it down to one major failing?

As for law enforcement, I think the biggest failure was to close the investigation off at the outset to other police departments, especially Boston and the Massachusetts State Police. Beyond the deference that local police have to the FBI, there was legitimate reason to allow to control the probe at the outset – the likelihood that the getaway would involve interstate travel and that the FBI committed as many as 40 agents on the streets of Boston.

But within the year, the investigation was placed in the hands of a single agent and his supervisor and while he could certainly call on the resources of the Boston office, his youth and lack of local roots limited his effectiveness. It was at that time – during the early 1990s – that the investigation should have been re-assessed and the involvement of more local police detectives, who would have had measurably better contacts in the local underworld, committed to the probe.

A true task force of federal and state agents at that time would have quickly realized that a team of state and local investigators had done surveillance on a group of criminals operating a cocaine trafficking network out of a Boston neighborhood auto body shop between 1989 and 1991. Federal agents did not begin looking into the network in the late 1990s but now believe its members played a role in the Gardner theft.

During the 1990s, federal agents conducted two major investigations into organized crime - one which resulted in the indictment of more than a dozen Boston mobsters for racketeering and murder, and the other a judicial inquiry into James (Whitey) Bulger’s alliance with the Boston office of the FBI. Remarkably, neither focused on whether there may have been Boston underworld involvement in the Gardner heist.
Q. Has anything been learned from this experience?

The aggressiveness and watchfulness of thieves – master thieves and otherwise – looking to exploit the vulnerabilities of our security systems. Whether museums, libraries or any public buildings, thieves are always looking for openings in which they can make a quick score.

Thankfully, museums, both small and large, have learned from the tragic loss at the Gardner Museum and reconstructed their security systems, improving their equipment and demanding their guards and night watch staff be far better trained. My concern is with the public building where historical records as well as valuable paintings abound yet insufficient thought is given to how vulnerable they are to theft.

Q.  Is the Gardner saga unique in the history of art theft?

Yes, it remains the largest art heist in world history, and has been on the FBI’s list of largest unsolved thefts for a longer period of time than any other except a robbery from a Milan church in 1969. Despite that uniqueness, there has been no outcry from our “leaders” of what the loss signifies to the common wealth of Boston, Massachusetts or the world. Anne Hawley, the Gardner director, has spoken eloquently and with true emotion about what it has been like living with the theft of the only Vermeer in New England, the only seascape that Rembrandt ever painted.

But where are the voices of the leaders of our government, business, religious life, academe, even sports heroes calling on their communities to understand what these losses mean to the public and asking for their help in the search? A French detective whom I interviewed said such thefts are treated with national shame in France and it has been allowed to be virtually forgotten here in Boston. I think if Boston is to consider itself a world class city, one which vies for the Olympics, it needs to bring the same commitment and resolve to getting these masterpieces back on the walls of the Gardner Museum as it showed in recovering from the 2013 terrorist attack of the Boston Marathon.

Q. Did anyone actually profit from the Gardner heist?

I don’t believe the theft was engineered to satisfy the expensive tastes of some criminal boss who happened to love art. The brutishness in which the theft was carried out – masterpieces cut out of their frames, their windowed encasements broken into shards of glass – tells me that these were not stolen for the appreciation of the art. Instead, it was done in hopes of gaining some favor from law enforcement, in effect the ultimate offer in a plea bargain for favorable consideration for an associate who was facing a prison sentence or already incarcerated.

For decades, there has been a belief – prompted by a single case in the mid-1970s – in Boston’s criminal underworld that the FBI would agree to such a favor if the value of the stolen pieces was great enough. In fact, what was granted in that case was no release from prison or dropping of the charges. Instead, federal and state authorities agreed to allow a thief to serve his prison sentences concurrently for two art thefts in exchange for his agreement to turn in a Rembrandt his gang had stolen from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Q. What's the single strangest thing about the Gardner heist?

Some of the people involved in the theft read like characters out of Dickens, the severity of their impoverished childhoods, the intensity of their underworld loyalties, their never-ending pursuit of the ultimate score, the interconnections between Boston crime figures — it’s the drama of epic proportions

Consider, Louis Royce, in whom the idea for robbing the museum originated. Born in the 1930s, Louis Royce is a product of a family of eight kids who grew up in a three-bedroom, cold water flat in the same tough Boston neighborhood that produced James (Whitey) Bulger, perhaps the city’s most notorious and violent criminals. Barely into his teens, Royce ran away from home and began living the life of a common thief, and having visited the Gardner Museum as a schoolboy he says he began sneaking into it at closing time occasionally because it offered a warm and safe [place] to sleep. Royce began plotting a break-in at the Gardner in the early 1980s after carrying out the theft of valuable prints from a suburban Boston home with the leader of one of Boston’s toughest criminal gangs and that leader’s nephew. Although Royce was in jail when the Gardner heist was pulled off, the FBI now believes that members of his gang was responsible for the theft.

Or [consider] gangsters like Robert Guarente, Carmello Melino, Robert Donati and Stephen Rossetti, local Boston hoods who plotted at one point of another to rob [the Gardner] mansion of gentility and artistic achievement. [The Gardner's] founder intended it solely as a gift to the American public.

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