BOSTON — They’ve identified the robbers, but haven’t located the paintings.
On Monday — the 23rd anniversary of the theft of an estimated $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston — federal authorities say a criminal organization with ties to several states in New England and the mid-Atlantic is responsible. The FBI isn’t naming names, however, and the statute of limitations for prosecuting the crime has run out.
For more on the Gardner case, WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Robert Wittman, a former FBI agent who investigated art theft for the agency and now does so for his own firm in Pennsylvania. Wittman says the FBI’s planned launch of a publicity campaign to try to locate the stolen paintings — including social media, a website and billboards — could work just as it did in locating fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger.
Wittman: Ten years ago, a lot of the things that they can do now they couldn’t do then, as far as getting the information out to the public. We’re in such a fast digital world that these types of images and things go out quickly and they get to very big masses of people fast.
Pfeiffer: So it’s like investigative crowd-sourcing.
Exactly. Exactly. That’s what it is. I know that in Philadelphia there’s going to be a number of digital billboards that are going to be up and down I-95 that they currently use to try to identify fugitives and then capture fugitives. Well, they’re going to be putting [images of] these paintings onto these digital billboards. Ten years ago the billboards were made out of paper or whatever. It would take days to put them up, they were only good for 30 days, and they had to come down.
Now the FBI says it has identified the thieves — it knows them by their identities, although it hasn’t disclosed them yet — but it doesn’t know where the paintings themselves are. It says that it does know that at one point they may have made their way through Philadelphia and were possibly put up for sale. Now, you worked in Philly for the FBI for much of the ’90s. Did you have any sense at the time that those paintings may have come through town?
You know, that’s news to me. Yeah, I was the agent involved in art theft investigations in Philadelphia, basically from 1998 to 2008. And the fact that these paintings — or the speculation that these paintings — may have come through Philadelphia at that point is news to me because I was involved in that case and involved in the attempts to recover them from 2006 to 2008, and I can tell you they weren’t in Philadelphia then.
This has been a mystery for more than two decades now. Why do some of these take longer to crack, to solve, than others?
It all depends on where the paintings are and what happens to them. That’s one of the reasons why this particular case is rather unusual. To have this many pieces of this stature gone for this long with absolutely no sightings, no real information about where they are, is a very strange situation. Usually paintings like this are recovered within a few months, or at least within a few years. Once they go past that stage, then it may take 10 to 15 years before they come back to market, but they’re usually recovered in that period of time.
The ability to resell paintings like this that are so prominent, I would assume, is quite limited. So why would you take a piece of art or pieces of art that are so well-known and so recognizable?
You’re absolutely right, and I very seldom, if ever, have seen these pieces, these types of paintings, sold successfully. I mean, they don’t show up in galleries to be sold because they’re going to be recovered very quickly. And in today’s world, with the news the way it is, when a heist occurs those paintings are all over the world within a few minutes.
So why steal them if they’re so hard to sell?
Because many times the people who are involved in these types of cases are not what we call “Hollywood art thieves.” These people are involved in all types of criminal enterprises. They steal cars, they rob banks, sell drugs and guns, do aggravated assaults. And one of the things that they have done also is an art theft. So it’s just one of many crimes that they’re committing.
So is it almost as if it’s recreational? It’s just fun? They don’t expect to make any money off of them?
No. What happens is they don’t realize that they can’t sell them. They’re not aficionados of the art market. So they know they can steal a Mercedes, let’s say, and cut the Mercedes up and sell the parts for more money than the actual Mercedes itself is worth. They extrapolate that. They think, well, anything they can steal — steal jewelry, pop the diamonds, pop the emeralds — they can sell for a minimal amount. They don’t realize that art can’t be sold once it’s stolen because it’s unique.
Where do you think these paintings could be? Are they stuck in some warehouse, are they in some attic, are they in some basement somewhere?
I sure hope so. I really do. I hope that these paintings are all together. I hope they’re in good shape, I hope they’re being taken care of and they’re somewhere where we can recover them at some point, because it would be a true sin if these paintings were destroyed, or if something happened to them where they could not be recovered or conserved. It worries me. It worries me whenever I’ve seen paintings cut out of frames.
As these were.
As some of these were, yes. And when I see that happen, usually it’s catastrophic for the artworks.