The 25th Anniversary of the Gardner Heist

The empty frame which once held "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum
The empty frame which once held Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

25 years ago tonight, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suffered a devastating loss to its collection. 13 works of art led to a FBI investigation, and a new Federal Criminal provision. But the works themselves are still lost. Today brings a slew of examinations of the theft and the subsequent investigation.

Stephen Kurkjian, an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe, and author of a new work on the theft, has an extended portion of the book at the Boston Globe. He recounts many details of the efforts in 2013 that many speculated would lead to a break in the case:51xpxG-EUwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

As for the FBI, DesLauriers hoped the announcement would have two immediate reactions that might lead to a breakthrough. First, that the public would take his advice and look in their attics and garages to see if anything had been hidden there. And second, that someone in the underworld, who might have had secret information on the paintings, would make a call that would be picked up on one of the FBI’s many standing wiretaps.

The announcement created tremendous media attention and brought numerous calls to Boston’s FBI office. But within a month all had been followed up to no avail, and the sense of an inevitable recovery soon faded. By that time the public’s attention, not to mention that of DesLauriers and every other FBI agent assigned to the Boston office, had rightfully shifted to another case: the Boston Marathon bombing. The FBI’s press person began referring to the Gardner announcement as a “publicity event,” and both DesLauriers and the head of the FBI’s criminal division declined to answer questions on how credible the information in their “significant investigative process” had actually been.

The editorial board of the Boston Globe argues that the FBI should open its files on the case, as the hopes for any conviction are very thin now, and recovery of the art is the number one priority 25 years later:

But the Gardner heist is different. Getting the art back to its home on the Fenway is far more important than actually arresting anyone. The statute of limitations for the robbery itself expired long ago. And normal investigatory practices clearly haven’t paid off. That’s not to fault the FBI, which must balance seeking lost art with more life-and-death matters.

What the case needs is help from the public, and piquing its interest will require both disclosing all available details — you never know what might jog someone’s memory — and embracing more creative approaches to engaging the public. One tool that wasn’t available in 1990 may help: social networking. In a well-known 2009 experiment, a team at MIT tapped social networks to find 10 red balloons located at random locations across the continental United States. By offering rewards not just to tipsters, but to those who forwarded the information, they found them all in less than nine hours. That type of approach may or may not help find the Gardner art. But authorities need to do something to reboot the investigation.

Malcolm Gay, also of the Boston Globe, talks with Anne Hawley, who was then a new museum director when the theft occurred:

But if the robbery caused Hawley nightmares, her mornings brought little relief. Arriving at the museum early one day, she recalls, a security guard told her there was a woman on the phone for her. When Hawley picked up, the voice on the other end was desperate, calling from a parking lot in Walpole.

“She’d had her leg broken because she said she knew too much about our investigation and that people were trying to kill her,” Hawley recounted. “I’m saying, ‘How do we find you? Where’s the car?’ ”

The FBI eventually located the woman. She apparently did have information, according to Hawley, but as has so often happened in this case, it wasn’t very useful to investigators.

Another early tip led to Japan in 1992, after a US teacher visited the home of a wealthy Japanese businessman. As they toured his private gallery, Hawley said, the host walked his guest past canvases by van Gogh and Monet.

“Then he pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” ’ ” said Hawley, recalling that the teacher called the Cleveland Museum of Art, which in turn contacted the Gardner.

Hawley alerted the FBI, which launched an investigation that involved Interpol and the Japanese authorities.

With so many moving parts, Hawley tried to accelerate matters by reaching out to Joan Mondale, whose husband, former vice president Walter Mondale, was appointed US ambassador to Japan in 1993.

When investigators finally received permission to enter the house, Hawley dispatched the museum’s chief conservator to Japan to analyze the painting.

The businessman was horrified, recalled Hawley. “He had fakes. The whole collection was fakes.”

Hawley may laugh about it now, but at the time she was crushed.

“So much energy had been expended on it,” she said. “At a certain point I developed this distancing capacity. I wouldn’t believe in anything. I would just be clinical about it.”

The 1997 meeting in New York would mark the last time Hawley became personally involved in the theft investigation.

NPR Story Corps got the firsthand account of a security guard who was tricked into letting the thieves into the museum that night:

Twenty-five years ago at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, two men posing as police officers tricked Rick Abath — the night watchman — into letting them in.

“At the time of the robbery I had just dropped out of Berklee College of Music. I was playing in a band, and working night shift at the museum,” Abath said during a recent visit to StoryCorps with his wife, Diana. “I was just this hippie guy who wasn’t hurting anything, wasn’t on anybody’s radar and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”

The two men ended up stealing 13 objects worth half a billion dollars, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and a bunch of sketches by Degas. They have never been caught, nor has the art ever been recovered.

“You know, most of the guards were either older or they were college students,” 48-year-old Abath continued. “Nobody there was capable of dealing with actual criminals. But that night two cops rang the doorbell. They had hats, badges, they looked like cops, and I let them in. They said, ‘Are you here alone?’ And I said, ‘I have a partner that’s out on a round.’ They said, ‘Call him down.’ And they said, ‘Gentlemen this is a robbery.’ ”

This is how police found Rick Abath after the theft. The former night watchman will never forget the night he was tricked into letting two thieves into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He worries others won’t forget it either.

The thieves duct-taped around Abath and his partner’s eyes, and they duct-taped the bottom of his chin to the top of his head.

“And they handcuffed me to the electrical box for seven hours,” he explained. “At first I was panicking, and then I started singing ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Bob Dylan. I don’t know how long I was singing that damn song for, but it was quite some time.”

And Tom Mashberg, a reporter who authored a book with Anthony Amore on the theft of works by Rembrandt, writes in the New York Times about his efforts to track down and report the investigation. Including an encounter, apparently dismissed by the FBI, with Rembrandt’s stolen “Storm”:

I found myself in Brooklyn, 200 miles from the scene of the crime, tracking yet another lead. My guide had phoned me suggesting he knew something of the robbery, and he had some street credibility because he was allied with a known two-time Rembrandt thief. He took me into a storage locker and flashed his light on the painting, specifically at the master’s signature, on the bottom right of the work, where it should have been, and abruptly ushered me out.

The entire visit had taken all of two minutes.

Call me Inspector Clouseau — I’ve been called worse in this matter, including a “criminal accomplice” by a noted Harvard law professor — but I felt certain I was feet from the real thing, that the Rembrandt, and perhaps all the stolen art, would soon be home. I wrote a front-page article about the furtive unveiling for The Herald — with a headline that bellowed “We’ve Seen It!” — and stood by for the happy ending.

It never came. Negotiations between investigators and the supposed art-nappers crumbled amid dislike and suspicion. Gardner officials did not dismiss my “viewing” out of hand, but the federal agents in charge back then portrayed me as a dupe. Eighteen years later, I still wonder whether what I saw that night was a masterpiece or a masterly effort to con an eager reporter.



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