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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

Meanwhile, the specter of Whitey Bulger continues to haunt the case. Just outside Kelly’s office, a photograph of the gangster hangs on the bureau’s Ten Most Wanted list. The possibility of Bulger’s complicity “has been around since day one,” says Kelly. “But we haven’t come across any evidence relevant to that theory.”

Might rogue agent John Connolly have tipped Bulger off about the Gardner investigation? “I am not aware of that,” Kelly answers.

With or without Connolly’s involvement, there have been reports that two Bulger associates—Joseph Murray of Charleston and Patrick Nee of South Boston—claimed they had access to the stolen paintings in the early 1990s. Both Murray and Nee, who were convicted in 1987 of attempting to smuggle guns from New England to the Irish Republican Army, have been linked to the Gardner theft by informants, but Kelly says that no evidence supports those claims. Murray is dead now, shot by his wife in 1992. And Nee, who returned to South Boston on his release from prison in 2000, denies any involvement in the theft.

“The paintings are in the West of Ireland,” says British investigator Charles Hill, “and the people holding them are a group of criminals—about the hardest, the most violent and the most difficult cases you are ever likely to encounter. They have the paintings, and they don’t know what to do with them. All we need to do is convince them to return them. I see that as my job.” Although Hill stresses that his comments are speculative, they are informed by his knowledge of the case and the characters involved.

It would be easy to dismiss Charles Hill were it not for his experience and his track record at solving hard-to-crack art cases. The son of an English mother and an American father, Hill went to work as a London constable in 1976 and rose to the rank of detective chief inspector in Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit. After a 20-year career at the yard, he retired and became a private investigator specializing in stolen art. He has been involved in a string of high-profile cases, helping to recover Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which had been missing for seven years; Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid; Goya’s Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate; and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, among other works. (Another version of The Scream, stolen from Oslo’s MunchMuseum last year, is still missing.)

Hill believes that the Gardner paintings arrived in Ireland sometime between 1990 and 1995, shipped there by none other than Whitey Bulger. “Being extremely clever, knowing that he could negotiate the paintings for money or for a bargaining chip, he took them,” says Hill. “Only Bulger could have done it at the time. Only Bulger had the bureau protecting him. Moving the pictures was easy—most probably in a shipping container with no explosives or drugs for a dog to sniff. He thought Ireland meant safety for him and the museum’s stuff.”

But Bulger had not bargained on being charged with multiple murders, which made him less than welcome in Ireland’s West Country and helpless to bargain down the charges against him. “He went to Ireland hoping to hide out there,” says Hill. “When they threw him out, they hung on to his things, not knowing what to do with them.”

Hill says he is in delicate negotiations that may lead him to the Irish group holding the paintings. “I have someone who says he can arrange for me to visit them,” he explains. “If you will forgive me, I would rather not tell you their names right now.” Hill adds that the group, while not part of the IRA, has links with it.

A few scraps of evidence support an Irish connection. On the night of the theft—St. Patrick’s Day—one of the intruders casually addressed a guard as “mate,” as in: “Let me have your hand, mate.” Hill thinks it unlikely that a Boston thug or any other American would use that term; it would more likely come from an Irishman, Australian or Briton. Hill also connects the eclectic array of objects stolen to the Irish love of the horse. Most of the Degas sketches were equestrian subjects, “an iconic Irish image,” he says. As for the Napoleonic flag, they settled for the finial—perhaps as a tribute of sorts to the French general who tried to link up with Irish rebels against Britain.

So in Hill’s view, all roads lead to Ireland. “It’s awful for the FBI,” he says. “When the paintings are found here, it is going to be another terrible embarrassment for them. It will show that Whitey pulled off the largest robbery of a museum in modern history—right under their noses.” Hill pauses for a moment. “Don’t be too hard on them, now.”

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