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The Isabella Gardner Museum heist

By Rochelle Steinhaus
Court TV

The main entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The main entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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(Court TV) -- It has the mob, ex-cons, international terrorists, millions of dollars at stake and priceless masterpieces. But the one thing the story of the biggest art heist in history doesn't have is an ending.

At least not yet.

It has been 12 years since a pair of thieves pretending to be police officers stole works by the likes of Rembrandt, Degas and Manet worth roughly $300 million from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Even with the prospect of a $5 million reward, none of the 13 pieces has been found.

The probe has taken several interesting twists and turns, leading the FBI to focus on the Irish Republican Army, a Boston mob boss now on the lam and a notorious art thief who has been recently paroled. So far the art and the thieves remain at large.

Not a single person has been prosecuted in connection with the case -- and now even if the thieves are caught they could be immune from prosecution because of a statute of limitations.

The investigation continues, however, to identify those who commissioned the robbery or possess the art -- and of course, to recover the stolen works.

"It still is an active investigation," said Special Agent Charles Prouty, who heads up the Boston field office of the FBI. "It is an active investigation all over the world."

The crime

Hours after St. Patrick's Day festivities wrapped up in Boston on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers knocked on the security entrance side door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:24 a.m.

"The policy has always been that you don't open that door in the middle of the night for God. Why on this one night they opened the door no one can explain," Lyle Grindle, the museum's current head of security, told Access Control & Security Systems, a security industry trade publication. Grindle was not in charge of security at the time of the 1990 heist.

Just minutes after letting them in, the guards quickly learned that the late night visitors weren't real cops.

Though they apparently did not brandish any weapons, the intruders managed to overpower the two guards. They handcuffed the guards, bound them with duct tape and left them in the basement.

In the fewer than 90 minutes that followed, the bandits went through the museum's Dutch Room on the second floor and stole three Rembrandts, including the Dutch artist's only seascape, "Storm on the Sea of Galilee."

It was one of several works the thieves savagely cut to release it from its frame, leaving ragged edges of the canvas behind in otherwise empty frames, which continue to hang in the museum to this day.

Also taken from that room was "The Concert" by Vermeer, as well as a Chinese bronze beaker located near the Rembrandt.

The thieves also apparently tried to steal a fourth Rembrandt but were unsuccessful.

"They tried to pry the wooden frame," explained Prouty during a recent interview in his Boston office.

Nearby, they also made off with "Landscape with an Obelisk," an oil painting by Govaert Flinck that was until recently attributed to Rembrandt, Flinck's mentor.

On the other side of the floor, the thieves went into the Short Gallery and ripped five Degas sketches from the wall. Feet away a bronze eagle that adorned the top of a Napoleonic flag was also pillaged.

A Manet portrait, located in the museum's Blue Room on the first floor, capped off the list of works the thieves stole.

Oddly enough, the third floor -- where the Titian Room showcases "The Rape of Europa," since voted the city's most significant piece of art -- went untouched.

It is not known in what order the rooms were ransacked, since the thieves ripped out the surveillance tape before fleeing the museum with it.

To this day, the small museum isn't able to collect insurance, since it carried no insurance policy at the time of the heist.

A cast of shady characters

The early investigation led authorities down several paths, from the Boston mafia to the IRA.

Some theories suggest that a robbery of this magnitude couldn't have been pulled off without the "blessing" of local organized crime figures, suggesting James "Whitey" Bulger, head of Boston's Irish mob, has some knowledge of the robbery or the paintings' whereabouts.

Bulger, who has been on the run since 1995 after a disgraced FBI agent tipped him off that he was about to be indicted for racketeering and extortion, had acted as a government informant for two decades. At the same time, he rose through the ranks of Boston's Winter Hill Gang. He was added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in 2000 and there is a $1 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The IRA was also a focus of the initial investigation.

The organization itself (which is dedicated to ending British rule in Northern Ireland and was considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department until two years ago), has a history of involvement with "art theft on a big scale," according to art investigator Harold Smith, who in retirement has made the Gardner heist his personal crusade.

In 1974 an IRA gang robbed, Russborough House, a private estate near Dublin that houses major works of art, of 19 paintings, including a Vermeer, a Goya and two Gainsboroughs. The works, which were pried from their frames with screwdrivers, were later used in an attempt to barter for the transfer of four of the group's imprisoned members.

The art, however, was recovered less than two days later. Since that heist, the estate has been targeted for art theft on three other occasions.

Another early suspect in the investigation -- by his own admission -- was antiques dealer and Scotland Yard informant Michael van Rijn.

Van Rijn, who was living in New York City at the time of the robbery, denies involvement in the heist, but claimed in an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine to have information regarding who did, and possibly on the paintings' whereabouts. Saying he feared for his life, van Rijn refused to divulge anything and went into hiding in London shortly after the article appeared in November 2001.

The investigation has revolved mainly around two convicted criminals from the Boston area -- Myles Connor, a notorious art thief, and his associate, William Youngworth, a career criminal.

Though in a Rhode Island prison serving a 15-year sentence for trafficking stolen antiques in Rhode Island at the time of the 1990 robbery, Connor surfaced early on in the investigation as a possible mastermind of the heist. From behind bars and after he was released on parole, Connor continued to lead the feds down several winding paths -- and remains a significant figure in the case.

'He can get these paintings in a half hour'

FBI Special Agent Prouty: Time is often on the law's side.
FBI Special Agent Prouty: Time is often on the law's side.

Myles Connor, the son of a cop and brother of a priest, has earned the reputation for not only being an art thief, but an art connoisseur often spotted at gallery openings and art shows.

"You can believe I didn't plan the thing, or 'The Rape of Europa' would have been the first to go," Connor said during a jailhouse interview with Time magazine in 1997. In a 2001 survey of museum directors conducted by the Boston Globe, the work was voted the most significant in Beantown, beating out other masterpieces showcased at larger museums in the city, such as the Museum of Fine Arts.

According to Connor, he and a former "associate," Bobby Donati, went to the Gardner in the mid-1970s and discussed how easy it would be to pull off a robbery. He even says that Donati mentioned he liked the Napoleonic flag finial, a work of relatively little value compared with the other masterpieces in the museum.

But Connor said he never followed through on robbing the Gardner. Shortly after his visit with Donati, a Rembrandt was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. Though Connor never admitted to that theft, he did arrange for its return in exchange for avoiding prison time for another art theft in Maine.

Connor claims Donati and another associate, David Houghton, arranged the Gardner robbery on their own. Donati was found dead the following year hog-tied and stabbed in the trunk of a car, and Houghton died in 1992.

"He said it was his plan. The implication is that these people had heard Myles Connor's plan, but instead of using art thieves they used armored car thieves," Smith says.

Connor says his now-deceased friends told him they would leave information about the paintings' whereabouts if anything happened to them.

While incarcerated, Connor told the FBI that he could find out where the art was -- but that he couldn't do it from prison.

The FBI didn't release Connor, but in 1997 raised the museum's reward for the safe return of all the works from $1 million to $5 million. On August 18 of that year, Youngworth, Connor's associate, called a Boston Herald reporter boasting he had the art and would take him to see it.

The reporter, Tom Mashberg, took a 40-minute drive to an unknown location and saw what looked like Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee." He was even allowed to take some paint chips with him for proof.

Youngworth said that he would return the art in exchange for immunity for himself and Connor, Connor's release from prison and the $5 million reward.

The FBI responded by asking Youngworth to return one of the 13 works in a show of good faith, but received nothing.

The chips were later analyzed, and after some controversy regarding their authenticity, authorities deemed them fakes.

Youngworth, whose criminal record included more than 60 convictions in Massachusetts alone, soon found himself back behind bars for a stolen car rap. He was released from prison in 2000.

"He claims he can get these paintings in a half hour," Smith said of a lunch he once had with Youngworth in a Manhattan restaurant.

Connor was released on parole in 2000 after serving two-thirds of his 15-year sentence.

Smith seems to believe that the pair could hold the keys to recovering the art.

"If everyone connected with this case was given amnesty, it would be solved," Smith believes.

But Prouty is more skeptical of how much the two really know.

"He [Connor] has come to us on a number of occasions with different theories. In every instance," he says, "it has not been what it has been purported."

Where does stolen art go?

In a murder investigation, each day that goes by means the trail grows colder and colder. But unlike most other crimes, the more time passes in an art theft, the closer investigators could be getting to cracking it, according to Prouty.

Statistically, most art thefts take several years or even decades to solve. Once a thief pulls off the robbery itself, another challenge arises -- selling the work without getting caught. Armed with the knowledge that a recently stolen work could be familiar to even the general public in a highly publicized case, thieves often keep the art for a time before trying to fence it.

And when the art is passed along, authorities often receive tips about who is possesses it.

"As time passes, relationships change, people are divorced, people may die," Prouty said.

His office continues to receive tips that are actively investigated.

"We've had close calls," he said.

One tipster thought they saw Rembrandt's "Lady and Gentlemen in Black" in Japan.

Another lead came from a Boston FBI agent who was walking through nearby Charleston, the historic Boston-area town that hosts a Navy Yard and Old Ironsides, when he thought he saw one of the stolen works through a window.

In both instances, however, the paintings were replicas, not originals.

Investigators are also on the lookout for works being sold through art catalogs and small dealers.

"People talk about a black market in stolen art," explains Anna Kisluk, director of art services of the Art Loss Register, an international agency funded by the major auction houses to serve as a database for stolen art. "Certainly there's some of that."

But for the most part, she says, much art is recovered through happenstance -- stumbling across it in a small antique shop or from dealers who don't even realize the work is stolen.

"Fifty-one percent of stolen art is found in art catalogs. People try to fence it," Prouty explains.

While many art auction houses, including leading ones like Christie's and Sotheby's, make it a policy to check if an art work is stolen before accepting it for auction, there is no requirement to do so by law, making it easy for stolen art to slip through the cracks with smaller establishments.

While Prouty declined to elaborate on specifics citing the active investigation, he says that nothing is being ruled out.

The identity of the two mysterious robbers is still unknown, aside from their descriptions -- both white males who wore Boston Police uniforms and fake-looking shiny black mustaches.

According to the FBI's description, one of the suspects appeared to be in his late 20s to mid-30s, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10 inches tall with a medium build, dark eyes and short black hair.

The other was in his early to mid-30s, approximately 6-feet tall, between 180 and 200 pounds, and had broad shoulders, dark eyes and medium-length black hair.

But while authorities hope that identifying the two suspects leads them to the art, they might never be prosecuted for the crime.

That's because the statute of limitations on robbery in Massachusetts ran out six years ago, so neither could be prosecuted as long as the scheme was plotted by someone else and they no longer had any of the 13 works in their possession. The only applicable federal law that can be enforced up to 20 years after the crime wasn't enacted until 1994, four years after the Gardner heist.

In fact, the Gardner case spurred passage of the Theft of Major Artwork statute, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for stealing any museum art more than a century old or worth at least $100,000.

While the identity of the two mysterious robbers remains unknown, art investigator Harold Smith has his theories.

"If we're honest we don't really know," Smith admits. "But the actual thieves to me sound like down-to-earth burglars."

History shows that most art crimes are not committed for the love of art.

"Most thieves steal for money. They're in it for the buck," concurs Anna Kisluk of the Art Loss Register. "Thieves first and foremost are not art connoisseurs."

Some theories of the Gardner heist are also based on which works the thieves selected.

The most valuable piece in the museum, Titian's "The Rape of Europa," for example, was left untouched. Other works that were stolen, such as the finial from a Napoleonic flag and four sketches by Degas, are not worth nearly as much as some of the paintings.

"They're nice, they're interesting," explains Kisluk. "They're not masterpieces."

Some of the more unusual details of the robbery continue to perplex investigators and Smith alike.

One of the Rembrandts was savagely cut out of the frame, probably diminishing its value significantly.

"I can't figure that out," Smith admits.

Empty frames

The Gardner Museum is not Boston's largest museum, but the unique 15th-century Venetian style palace is home to some of city's priceless masterpieces.

Though museum officials are reluctant to talk about the robbery, which one museum source referred to as "an unfortunate part of the museum's history," empty frames that continue to hang on the walls serve as a constant reminder.

Museum administrators had little choice in leaving the empty frames for visitors to see. Isabella Stewart Gardner herself left specific instructions about how the museum should be maintained upon her death. Gardner willed that nothing in the collection, which includes approximately 2,500 pieces spanning 30 centuries, be changed.

Museum officials no longer allow the press to photograph the empty frames, nor will they discuss the robbery at length, citing concerns that the ongoing investigation could be compromised.

"These rare and important treasures of art need to be returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and be on view again for the general public. When people often talk of the monetary value of works of art, the value of artworks extends far beyond such a measure," said director Anne Hawley in a written statement. "Let this year, as we embark on our Centennial celebrations, be further celebrated by the return of these stolen treasures to the Gardner -- and to a waiting public ready to join in on the celebration."

Besides the empty frames. a small, simple sign stating the date of the robbery hangs in the place of the stolen Degas drawings.

Easier to miss is a small dent in the wall inches from a flag that once belonged to Napoleon. Though the flag still stands in the corner of the museum's Short Gallery, the finial -- a bronze eagle -- is missing.

Since the robbery, the museum has obtained insurance and has expanded its security system. Today, the security staff is larger than any other department in the museum.

Though not permitted to speak on the record to the media, some staffers expressed hopes that the works will return home.

Said one optimistic employee, "We're going

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