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Ripped from the Walls (and the Headlines)

Fifteen years after the greatest art theft in modern history the mystery may be unraveling

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In recent years, big-ticket paintings have become a substitute for cash, passing from hand to hand as collateral for arms, drugs or other contraband, or for laundering money from criminal enterprises. “It would appear that changes in the banking laws have driven the professional thieves into the art world,” says Smith of the Art Loss Register. “With tighter banking regulations, it has become difficult for people to put big chunks of money in financial institutions without getting noticed,” she explains. “So now thieves go out and steal a painting.”

Although the theft of a Vermeer or a Cézanne may generate the headlines, the illicit art market is sustained by amateurs and minor criminals who grab targets of opportunity— the small, unspectacular watercolor, the silver inkstand, the antique vase or teapot—most from private homes.These small objects are devilishly hard to trace, easy to transport and relatively painless to fence, though the returns are low. “If you have three watercolors worth £3,000,” Smith says, “you are likely to get only £300 for them on the black market.” Even so, that market brings more money to thieves than stolen radios, laptops and similar gear. “Electronics have become so affordable that the market for them has dried up,” Smith adds, “and those who go after these things have learned that art is better money than computers.”

Smith and others who track stolen art are clearly irritated by the public’s misconception that their world is populated by swashbucklers in black turtlenecks who slip through skylights to procure paintings for secretive collectors. “I’m afraid it’s a lot more mundane than that,” says Lynne Richardson, former manager of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team. “Most things get stolen without much fanfare. In museums it’s usually somebody with access who sees something in storage, thinks it’s not being used and walks off with it.”

Glamorous or not, today’s art crooks are motivated by a complex of urges. In addition to stealing for the oldest reason of all—money—they may also be drawn by the thrill of the challenge, the hope of a ransom, the prospect of leverage in plea bargaining and the yearning for status within the criminal community. A few even do it for love, as evidenced by the case of an obsessed art connoisseur named Stephane Breitwieser. Before he was arrested in 2001, the French waiter went on a seven-year spree in Europe’s museums, amassing a collection valued as high as $1.9 billion. He reframed some of the works, cleaned them up and kept them in his mother’s small house in eastern France; there, according to court testimony, he would close the door and glory in his private collection, which included works by Bruegel, Watteau, Boucher and many others. He never sold a single piece. Finally collared in Switzerland for stealing an old bugle, he attempted suicide in jail when informed that his mother had destroyed some of his paintings to hide his crimes. Breitwieser spent two years jailed in Switzerland before being extradited to France, where he was sentenced to a 26- month prison term in January 2005.

What continues to perplex those investigating the Gardner mystery is that no single motive or pattern seems to emerge from the thousands of pages of evidence gathered over the past 15 years. Were the works taken for love, money, ransom, glory, barter, or for some tangled combination of them all? Were the raiders professionals or amateurs? Did those who pulled off the heist hang on to their booty, or has it passed into new hands in the underground economy? “I would be happy to knock it down to one or two theories,” says FBI special agent Geoffrey J. Kelly, who has been in charge of the Gardner investigation for three years. He acknowledges that the bureau has left the book open on a maddening array of possibilities, among them: that the Gardner theft was arranged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to raise money or to bargain for the release of jailed comrades; that it was organized by James J. “Whitey” Bulger, who was Boston’s ruling crime boss and a top-echelon FBI informant at the time of the heist; that it was inspired by Myles J. Connor Jr., an aging rocker who performed with Roy Orbison before he gained fame as New England’s leading art thief.

Connor, who claims to have pulled off no less than 30 art thefts in his career, was in jail when the GardnerMuseum was raided; but he boasts that he and a now deceased friend, Bobby Donati, cased the place several years before, and that Donati did the deed. Connor came forward after the museum increased its reward from $1 million to $5 million in 1997, saying he could find the missing artwork in exchange for immunity, part of the reward and release from prison. Authorities considered but ultimately rejected his offer. Connor believes that the Gardner spoils have passed into other, unknown hands. “I was probably told, but I don’t remember,” he says, citing a heart attack that affected his memory.

Some investigators speculate that the theft may have been carried out by amateurs who devoted more time to planning the heist than they did to marketing the booty; when the goods got too hot to handle, they may have panicked and destroyed everything. It is a prospect few wish to consider, but it could explain why the paintings have gone unseen for so long. It would also be a depressingly typical denouement: most art stolen in the United States never reappears—the recovery rate is estimated to be less than 5 percent. In Europe, where the problem has been around longer and specialized law enforcement agencies have been in place, it is about 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the FBI has managed to eliminate a few lines of inquiry into the Gardner caper. The two guards on duty at the time of the theft were interviewed and deemed too unimaginative to have pulled it off; another guard, who disappeared from work without picking up his last paycheck, had other reasons to skip town in a hurry; a former museum director who lived in the Gardner, entertaining visitors at all hours, was also questioned. He died of a heart attack in 1992, removing himself from further interrogation. Agents also interviewed a bumbling armored truck robber, as well as an exconvict from California who arrived in Boston before the theft and flew home just after it, disguised as a woman; it turned out that he had been visiting a mistress.

Special agent Kelly offers a tight smile: “There have been a lot of interesting stories associated with the case,” he says. “We try to investigate every one that seems promising.” Just the week before, in fact, he had traveled to Paris with another agent to probe rumors that a former chief of the financially troubled entertainment conglomerate Vivendi Universal had acquired the Gardner paintings, an allegation the official denies.

“In a bank robbery or an armored car robbery, the motivation is fairly easy to decipher,” says Kelly. “They want the money. The motivation in an art theft can be much more difficult to figure out.” The Gardner thieves were professional in some ways, amateurish in others: spending 90 minutes inside the museum seems unnecessarily risky, but the way they got in was clever. “It shows good planning,” says Kelly. “They had the police uniforms. They treated the guards well. That’s professional.” The thieves also knew the museum well enough to recognize that its most famous paintings were in the Dutch Room. Once there, though, they betrayed a bushleague crudeness in slashing the paintings from their frames, devaluing them in the process. “Given that they were in the museum for an hour and a half, why did they do that?” Kelly wonders.

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