The Greatest Art Heist of All Time: Will the Released Tape Bring Back Paintings?


A 25-year-old security video raises new questions about the mystery of who pulled off the greatest art theft in American history.

On Thursday (August 6), the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a blurry clip of a hatchback stopping outside a side door of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston. In the video, a man gets out of the car and is let in through the museum’s side door by on-duty security guard Richard Abath.

The footage is intriguing because of what happened almost exactly 24 hours later: Abath again buzzed people who shouldn’t have been there, this time two men dressed as policemen. The fake officers bound Abath and another guard with duct tape and fled with 13 works of art, including three Rembrandts and one Vermeer. The lost works are valued at $500 million. [Lost Art: See Images of Gardner Heist Paintings]

“It was the greatest property crime in US history,” said Robert Wittman, a retired special agent who founded the FBI’s National Artistic Crime Team in 2005. Wittman, author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” (Broadway Books, 2011), worked undercover on the Gardner case between 2006 and 2008.

twisted mystery

The Gardner heist took place in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. Since then there have been tantalizing clues to the whereabouts of the art, including a ransom note sent to the museum in 1994, an alleged viewing of one of the stolen paintings. by a Boston Herald reporter in 1997, and an offer made to an undercover Wittman to sell a Rembrandt and a Vermeer in 2006. Authorities investigating other art thefts blew Wittman’s cover before he can close the deal. [9 Famous Art Forgeries]

Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer left only a few dozen paintings after his death. One of them was “The Concert”, stolen during the Gardner heist. According to the museum, it is the most valuable stolen painting in the world. This painting alone is estimated at $200 million. It measures approximately 27 inches by 25 inches (69 cm by 63 cm) and depicts three musicians at work. (Image credit: FBI)

Abath has always denied any involvement in art theft. The newly revealed video is an important step in the investigation because it appears to contradict Abath’s denials of wrongdoing, said Stephen Kurkjian, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior reporter on the Gardner case for the Boston Globe.

“The car that was used the night of the robbery is described as a sedan, and the car that stops as seen in the new video appears to be a sedan,” said Kurkjian, who recently published a book on the case, “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled off the World’s Biggest Art Theft” (PublicAffairs, 2015). “So it’s very troubling that he allowed someone who wasn’t not allowed to be inside the museum during this night shift. It’s a violation of protocol, so now we know he broke protocol twice, the night of the flight and at the same time the night before.”

The new version also raises questions about whether the FBI had previously tracked down the lead featured in the tape, Kurkjian told Live Science.

Wittman speculated that the FBI might release the tape in order to confirm information about the person’s identity provided by Abath. The tape is not new to the FBI, he said, but there were likely about four generations of agents working on the case, and older investigations into the tape may not have not been documented for the agents currently working on the case. Wittman was unaware of the tape while at the FBI, he told Live Science. As an undercover agent, he said, he didn’t look at records or evidence.

Recover Gardner Art

Although valued at $500 million, the stolen artwork is probably worth nothing to thieves. Some of the paintings were cut from their wooden stretchers, an act that would severely damage or even destroy them, Wittman said. And in any case, such famous works would incriminate anyone who bought them, rendering them worthless on the black market. [Image Gallery: How Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasures]

“Nobody is going to pay a dime for any of these coins,” Kurkjian said.

So why steal them? Kurkjian suspects that the original thieves (or their bosses) thought the paintings would act as a sort of insurance policy: if the police caught them for their involvement in organized crime, they could evade jail by promising to lead the authorities to the theft. paintings.

“They call it a get out of jail card,” Kurkjian said. “That’s what they believe, but it’s a myth. I’ve never seen it put to the test.”

For his part, Wittman blames simple incompetence. People who steal art are usually not art thieves, he said. They are criminals who do everything from stealing cars to robbing banks. For art to have value, it must have a history and a provenance, but art thieves don’t know that, he said. “They’re not in the business.”

Many of the FBI’s first suspects in this case — the most involved in organized crime in the Boston area — are now dead. Abath lives in Vermont and has written his own book on crime. The Gardner Museum has offered a $5 million reward for anyone who gives information leading to the safe return of the artwork (or a partial reward for the return of certain pieces). Empty frames still hang on the walls of the galleries where the art was displayed.

The FBI believe the original thieves are dead, but their friends, family and associates may know where the art is now. Kurkjian thinks it will take more than money to loosen the lips.

“I would put people there who might have some credibility in the villain world, and I don’t mean criminals,” Kurkjian said. Instead, he said, the call should come from people who represent Boston’s womb redemption, like Boston Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley or Mayor Marty Walsh, who spoke of his healing. of alcoholism.

“I would put them in front of the frames, and I would say this: These people, this work of art, was collected for a transcendent reason, and it was to specifically inspire Bostonians, but [also] the art world in general, to create an American artistic tradition,” Kurkjian said. Without the Lost Pieces, which include the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted, that inspiration was gone, he said.

“I would call on the villains of their realm to say, you know, we all have a chance at redemption, and our chance at redemption is our children and our grandchildren,” Kurkjian said. “So put those paintings back on the wall so your grandkids and mine can see those paintings on their wall.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct Wittman’s spelling.

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