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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

And what of the wildly uneven range of works taken? “There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it,” he adds. Why bother with the Degas sketches? “And to overlook Titian’s Europa? And to spend such an inordinate amount of time trying to get the Napoleonic flag off the wall and then to settle for the finial?”

Perhaps most telling—and in some ways most unsettling— is the ominous silence since March 18, 1990. Kelly believes, and most other investigators agree, that the long hush suggests professional thieves who moved their stash with efficiency and who now control it with disciplined discretion. If the thieves had been amateurs, Kelly posits, “somebody would have talked by now or somehow those paintings would have turned up.”

It is not unusual for art thieves to hang on to prominent paintings for a few years, allowing time for the public excitement and investigative fervor to fade, for the artwork to gain in value and for both federal and state statutes of limitation to run their course. As a result of the Gardner case, Senator Edward M. Kennedy introduced the “Theft of Major Artwork” provision to the 1994 Crime Act, a new law making it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object more than 100 years old and worth $5,000 or more; the law also covers any object worth at least $100,000, regardless of its age, and prohibits possession of such objects if the owner knows them to be stolen. Even with such laws in force, the FBI’s Kelly says that some criminals keep paintings indefinitely as an investment against future trouble and to bargain down charges against them, or, as he puts it, as a get-out-ofjail- free card.

“It’s quite possible the paintings are still being held as collateral in an arms deal, a drug deal or some other criminal venture,” says Dick Ellis, a prominent investigator who retired in 1999 from Scotland Yard’s highly regarded Art and Antiques Unit. “Until the debt is paid off, they will remain buried. That is why nobody has heard of the paintings for 15 years. That is a long time, but it may be a big debt.”

Wherever the paintings may be, GardnerMuseum director Anne Hawley hopes that they are being well cared for. “It is so important that the art is kept in safe condition,” she says. “The works should be kept at a steady humidity of 50 percent—not more or less—and a steady temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They need a stable environment,” she adds, sounding like the concerned mother of a kidnapped child. “They should be kept away from light and they should be wrapped in acid-free paper.” While it is common practice for art thieves to roll up canvases for easy transport, Hawley pleads that the works be unrolled for storage to avoid flaking or cracking the paint. “Otherwise the paintings will be compromised and their value decreased. The more repainting that needs to be done when they are returned, the worse it will be for the integrity of the paintings.” (The museum had no theft insurance at the time of the heist, largely because the premiums were too high. Today the museum has not only insurance but an upgraded security and fire system.)

Like others who work in the palace Isabella Gardner built, Hawley, who had been on the job for just five months at the time of the theft, takes the loss personally. “For us, it’s like a death in the family,” she says. “Think of what it would mean to civilization if you could never hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony again. Think if you lost access to a crucial piece of literature like Plato’s Republic. Removing these works by Rembrandt and Vermeer is ripping something from the very fabric of civilization.”

In 1998—eight years into the investigation—Hawley and all of Boston woke up to the news that the local FBI office had been corrupted by a long partnership with Whitey Bulger, the crime boss and FBI informant who had been a suspect all along. Because Bulger and his associates had helped the FBI bring down Boston’s leading Italian crime family (which incidentally opened up new turf for Bulger), he was offered protection. Bulger happily took advantage of the opportunity to expand his criminal empire, co-opting some of his FBI handlers in the process. Abureau supervisor took payments from him, and a star agent named John Connolly warned him of impending wiretaps and shielded him from investigation by other police agencies.

When an honest prosecutor and a grand jury secretly charged Bulger in 1995 with racketeering and other crimes, Connolly tipped Bulger that an arrest was imminent, and the gangster skipped town. He has been on the run ever since. Connolly is now serving a ten-year prison sentence for conspiring with Bulger, and some 18 agents have been implicated in the scandal. As new details emerged in court proceedings, begun in 1998, the charges against Bulger have multiplied to include conspiracy, extortion, money laundering and 18 counts of murder.

Against this sordid background, it is easy to understand why some critics remain skeptical about the bureau’s ability to solve the case. “Their investigation was possibly corrupted and compromised from the start,” says the Gardner’s Hawley. “We assumed that things were proceeding according to schedule—then this came up!” While she praises Geoffrey Kelly as a diligent investigator and allows that the FBI’s Boston office has cleaned itself up, she has taken the remarkable step of inviting those with information about the Gardner theft to contact her—not the FBI. “If people are afraid to step forward or hesitant to speak with the FBI, I encourage them to contact me directly, and I will promise anonymity,” she says. “I know that there’s a child, a mother, a grandmother, or a lover—someone out there—who knows where the pieces are. Anyone who knows this has an ethical and moral responsibility to come forward.The most important thing is to get the art back, not to prosecute the people who took it.”

With that, at least, the FBI’s Kelly agrees. “The primary importance is to get the paintings back,” he says. “The secondary importance is to know where they’ve been since March 18, 1990. We want to get the message out that there is a $5 million reward, that the U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts has stated that he would entertain immunity negotiations for the return of the paintings. The reward, coupled with the immunity offer, really make this a good time to get these paintings back to the museum, where they belong.”

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