Sketching in the details of the Gardner heist
Ulrich Boser’s retelling of the greatest art theft in modern times doesn’t provide a solution but captures the dedication required to build up an art collection – and to steal it
Kriston Capps guardian.co.uk, Thursday 19 February 2009
A detail from Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only seascape, and one of the 13 works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photograph: Barney Burstein/Corbis:
It’s fair to say that when a criminal investigation has detectives turning to the assistance of psychics and paranormals, it has hit a rocky point. And so it goes for the investigators working the notorious Gardner heist, one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries. But it’s hardly for lack of effort. It’s just that so many of the prime suspects have wound up murdered.
The Gardner Heist
: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
by Ulrich Boser
In The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, journalist-turned-gumshoe Ulrich Boser gives his own account of the burglary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On 19 March 1990 – St Patrick’s Day, a fact that would later become a clue – two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the museum after hours, gagged and bound two night watchmen, and made off with some of the world’s most precious paintings. The 13 paintings ripped crudely from their frames, including masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas – a haul valued at around $500m (£347m) – have not been seen since.
The first of many obsessives to star in Boser’s tale is none other than socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner, the museum’s founder and namesake. Boser details the incredible dedication (and money) that the heiress put toward her pristine collection of Old Masters, early moderns, and other masterworks.
But it’s not long before the story plunges into the murky depths of contemporary organised crime. Following in the footsteps of detective-to-the-art-world Harold Smith, Boser follows the works through whispers in the underworld. In following the old leads collected by Smith (who died in 2005), Boser tracks the true cast of characters that surround the missing paintings and brings new facts to light in a mystery now entering its second decade.
Boser rejects the idea of a shadowy “Dr No” villain, presumed by many to have masterminded the heist for personal enjoyment. He explains that art theft is more mundane and fantastical than that: stolen art is sometimes fenced to insurance adjusters, or serves as a black-market bond.
Boser’s investigation leads him to suspects ranging from James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston-based Winter Hill Gang crime lord and the FBI’s second most wanted fugitive, to Thomas “Slab” Murphy, the IRA lieutenant who organised the Warrenpoint ambush. Myles Connor – a former rockabilly and probably the greatest art thief who ever lived – is just one of the violent, colourful figures in Boser’s tale of hardnosed FBI agents, corrupt Boston police, and slimy mob lawyers.
By Boser’s accounting, every cat burglar between Boston and Dublin has a bead on the missing masterpieces. To his credit, the book is a thrill despite the frustrating nature of the investigation, in which he painstakingly tracks audacious leads from mendacious thugs only to arrive at dead ends. And a few dead suspects. And to be sure, no art.
Still, Boser does turn up some new evidence and makes a conclusive case for the identity of the thieves who did the job. The mystery remains unsolved, but the case is reinvigorated in its retelling by a man who fully appreciates the value of the masterpieces and the magnitude of the criminal conspiracy that carried them away in the night.
Another review about the same book:
As the World’s Biggest Unsolved Art Theft Fades From View, a Fresh Look
By GUY DARST
The Gardner Heist
By Ulrich Boser
Collins, 272 pages, $25.99
The theft of important art is infuriating, but it also ignites curiosity like nothing else. You can have your Brink’s stickups and bank jobs. Some money gets stolen. Big deal. But when I read of a museum burglary, I start looking — hoping, I’m ashamed to say — for something like the 1964 Jules Dassin caper movie “Topkapi,” in which thieves penetrate Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum via a rope directly over the display case housing the object of their grandiose scheme.
No heist in memory can match for interest the one pulled off by two men dressed as police officers who talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston after midnight almost 19 years ago, then took over the place and drove off with a dozen works worth about a half-billion dollars today.
Stolen-art expert Harold Smith.
I began “The Gardner Heist” in the hope of finding out definitively who took the Gardner paintings and drawings and what happened to them. I was disappointed on those fronts, but not by the book itself. Author Ulrich Boser, a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, believes that he knows the identities of the two men who manhandled the two guards, shackled them in the basement and cruised the galleries picking up five drawings by Degas, Vermeer’s “The Concert,” a Manet portrait and three paintings by Rembrandt, including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
The first sub-mystery begins right there. Why were other priceless works ignored — the thieves missed the Titian Room — while the bronze eagle worth perhaps all of $10 atop a Napoleonic flag was grabbed? The thieves, or their boss, appear to have had a spotty knowledge of art. And a cavalier attitude toward their fragile treasure: The crooks simply slashed some of the canvases around the edges and left the frames behind.
“What I didn’t know—what I couldn’t have known—was that Smith would be dead within weeks of our meeting and that I would soon pick up where he left off.”
Read an excerpt from “The Gardner Heist”
The renowned collection was assembled by one of the great art patrons, Isabella Stewart Gardner, “Mrs. Jack,” the dazzling and bulldozer-like wife of Jack Gardner (1837-98), chairman of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. She died in 1924, leaving strict instructions in her will that nothing could be changed about the display of the 2,500-piece collection in the museum, which is patterned on a 15th-century Venetian palace. After the theft, curators had no choice but to keep the empty picture frames hanging on the walls, where they remain to this day, a melancholy reminder of the loss.
The Gardner Heist
One of the men fingered by Mr. Boser is serving a 38-year prison sentence for the attempted robbery of an armored-car depot in 1999. Another of the author’s prime suspects died of a cocaine overdose a year after the theft. Photos of the men are startlingly like police sketches made from the guards’ information. But that hardly settles the matter, and Mr. Boser doesn’t have anything approaching smoking-gun evidence.
And the stolen art? Over the years, rogues, con men and assorted shady characters have tried to persuade reporters, police, the FBI and even officials of the proud Gardner itself that they knew where the paintings were and how to get them back. Negotiations of various kinds took place. The museum’s offer of a $5 million reward — which is still in effect — has fired plenty of imaginations.
But despite everything, as far as anyone knows, no one not involved in the job has ever seen a single piece of the purloined art. For a while a solution to the crime seemed close. In 1997, Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg was escorted to a warehouse by a man who took from a heavy-duty poster tube what appeared to be Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” Mr. Mashberg’s contact, who said that he would return all of the stolen art in exchange for the $5 million reward, even provided a few paint chips, which an expert determined indeed could have come from a Rembrandt. But later the museum staff observed that “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” could not be rolled up to fit into a tube — the canvas was too stiff — and that, although the paint chips were from a 17th-century Dutch painting, they weren’t from one of the museum’s Rembrandts.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Vermeer’s “The Concert.”
The past two decades have seen a parade of shady volunteers bragging that they knew something about the missing art, including a notorious art burglar-connoisseur who often claimed to have intimate knowledge of the Gardner theft. But by the time Mr. Boser catches up with him, he is an old man with a wobbly memory and isn’t much help.
In his search, Mr. Boser also takes the reader on an informative tour of the small world of experts in stolen art. Among them is the debonair Harold Smith, who tried to crack the Gardner case for years and whose files, after his death, aid Mr. Boser’s investigation. The first lesson from the experts: Most museum security is lousy. Lesson No. 2: Many thefts are pulled off by real bozos, like the electrician in Waterford, Conn., who swiped a valuable painting from a home in 2005 and then sold the work, which was worth $150,000 at the time, to an antiques dealer for $100. Lesson No. 3: The reclusive, Croesus-rich art fancier who commissions heists from his remote castle in a foreign land is pretty much a myth.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
Mr. Boser even found himself in Ireland chasing down the possibility that the notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, on the lam since 1995, had been involved with the Gardner affair. But the Bulger minions who have shocked the city with revelations of his depravity — he is accused of 19 murders — have never mentioned an art theft. Still, the author puts forward a “plausible explanation” of why the Gardner art has never turned up: The criminal world being what it is, everyone with knowledge of the loot’s whereabouts has been murdered.
What about the fellow serving the 38-year sentence? That’s a long time. It would take remarkable stubbornness not to offer the Gardner works in exchange for a shorter stay — if he knew where they were or how to find out. For me, that’s reason enough to doubt that this suspect knows where the loot is. But Mr. Boser seems to want to believe: With nothing solid to clinch his case, he lapses into a flight of imagination, inventing a criminal mastermind who explains that the convict probably thought he could beat the attempted- robbery rap as he had beaten others. Just wait until 2036, the mastermind advises, when he is free — then all will be revealed. Even though Mr. Boser has produced a captivating portrait of the world’s biggest unsolved art theft, that’s a brushstroke too far.
Mr. Darst is a retired deputy editor of the editorial pages of the Boston Herald.