By Rick Koster
Published on 2/28/2009 in Home »Features »Features Main Photo:
Are they in your neighbor’s garage? Inside the Green Monster at Fenway? Stashed in an IRA fortress as a piece in a long-term political chess game?
Well, dammit, they’re somewhere.
In March 1990, 12 works of art, including paintings by Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer, were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Valued at as much as $500 million, the works constitute the biggest burglary in American history.
Despite protracted efforts by various law enforcement agencies and world-renowned art investigators over the years, the paintings are still missing.
IF YOU GO
WHO: Ulrich Boser, author of “The Gardner Heist – The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft” (Collins/Smithsonian Books, 260 pages, $25.99).
WHEN AND WHERE: 4 p.m. Sunday, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams, New London.
WHAT: Boser will describe his investigations into underworld art theft and his conclusions about the Gardner theft. Copies of the book will be available for sale from Bank Square Books in Mystic, and Boser will sign at a wine and cheese reception.
HOW MUCH: $5 for members of the museum; $10 for nonmembers. For each book sold, 20% of the price will be donated to the museum. Seating is limited.
INFO: 443-2545 ext. 129
Also on the hunt is Washington D.C. author/investigative reporter Ulrich Boser, whose new book, “The Gardner Heist – The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Heist,” has just been published. Boser has worked on the book for four years, and he describes an amazing descent into the murky world of underground art theft. The Gardner theft mesmerized him.
”That’s the thing, they could be anywhere,” says Boser, who will speak about the book Sunday at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. “The guy who passes you on the corner. Does he have them? When you start looking into it, it makes you sort of manic. They’ve got to be somewhere.”
Boser became interested in the case five years ago while writing a story for U.S. News & World Report on Harold Smith, one of the world’s most famous art detectives, who had recovered lost Renoirs and exposed forged Da Vincis.
Smith worked the Gardner case for years but, terminally ill, passed away shortly after meeting Boser. With the blessing of Smith’s son, Boser took the investigator’s files and has interviewed hundreds of people, followed hundreds of leads and traveled extensively trying to figure out what happened.
The good news: Boser thinks he knows who did it. It’s all laid out in “The Gardner Heist,” a fascinating book that reads like a flash-flood thriller with the smooth reporting of the finest magazine journalism.
Boser thinks Boston gangster David Turner, currently in prison, was definitely one of the criminals inside the museum that night.
”I know David Turner was involved and I think we have good evidence in the book,” Boser says. “At first I didn’t think he was involved but the more and more I got into it, the more I became convinced.”
Among the trail of evidence, Boser lays out how Turner is notorious for having robbed a number of Boston landmarks and sets out plausible connections as to who and how it could have happened.
Turner also sent Boser a rhyming poem about a storm on the Sea of Galilee – which is the subject of the Rembrandt painting in the heist.
”He actually bragged to me about it once, saying I should put him on the cover of the book,” Boser says, “but his lawyer stepped in and made him retract all quotes.”
Another fascinating tangent in the book details Boser’s investigation as to whether Whitey Bulger took control of the paintings after the heist. Bulger is a notorious Irish sympathizer, and one theory is that Bulger gave the works to IRA-connected gangsters to use as collateral or capital for future projects.
”I actually found no hard evidence that Bulger had anything to do with it,” Boser says, “but in my trip to Ireland I met a lot of colorful characters and learned a lot about the various motives for stealing art – and it’s never about aesthetics. It’s about money.”
In fact, Boser completely discounts the romantic notion that there exists an eccentric, billionaire art lover who finances thefts and then keeps the works in secret galleries in mansions in the Caribbean or Monaco or whatever. Such an apocryphal figure is known to art experts as a “Dr. No,” named after the criminal brainiac in the James Bond book.
”I don’t believe there are any Dr. No masterminds out there anywhere,” Boser says. “At least not as described in popular fiction or film. You can certainly buy a painting of shaky provenance. There was a lot of that after World War II, and the Gettys certainly got into trouble with that. But not on this scale.”
Now that the book is out, can Boser let the whole thing rest and move on to new projects?
”I can let it go at least on this level,” says Boser, who has established a web site, www.theopencase.com, that contains information and a tip line. “But you still want closure. I can’t overemphasize how you run down hundreds of leads and you just get lost in the dark and seduced by the mystery.”