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Gardner Art Heist: The Thieves Who Couldn't Steal Straight

This article is more than 7 years old.

Having covered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case for 16 years, I’ve seen my share of anniversary press conferences. Most have been gloomy, a few hopeful. Last Monday’s announcement, coinciding with the heist’s 23rd anniversary, was by far the most dramatic.

From a public relations standpoint, the press conference was a hit, generating flashing Internet bulletins and global media coverage. Since crowd-sourcing was the goal, the FBI should be pleased. But we didn’t really learn anything new beyond the assertion that some of the stolen paintings made their way to Philadelphia a decade ago. I was invited to speak with investigators alone for a few minutes after the news conference. They are dedicated men to be sure, and they were candid: they told me that for now the trail has “gone cold.”

A lot of these characters, chief among them a gangster named Carmello Merlino, can be heard yapping on wiretaps about their plans to return the art for the $5 million reward money — if only they could find it.

It was attention grabbing to hear them say they know the identities of the thieves. (Keeping the names secret is wise from an investigative standpoint — imagine the media swarm.) But any careful follower of the case can boil the list of likely robbers down to three men — all Boston-area felons. My belief is that two of the thieves are dead, and the third is in prison. The dead men will tell no tales, but there is still a chance to squeeze the guy behind bars.

Investigators spoke of a “criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.” The lynchpin here would be a lifelong hood named Robert F. Guarente, a mob figure who died in 2004 at age 65. Guarente’s criminal history dated to the 1950s, when he was collared in Philadelphia for cashing forged money orders. In 1968, he was arrested with a group of  Boston stickup artists for robbing eight banks, at one point taking two women hostage in a botched effort to flee police. He spent about 20 years in Walpole prison. His movements have been traced from Maine to Hartford. In 1991, he pulled a gun during a family dispute and was arrested.

But I’ll never believe that Guarante and his entourage of bloody hoodlums thought this heist up on their own. It is far more likely they wrested some of the art from the men who broke in, then didn’t know what to do with it. A lot of these characters, chief among them a gangster named Carmello Merlino, also deceased, can be heard yapping on wiretaps about their plans to return the art for the $5 million reward money — if only they could find it. It’s the gang that couldn’t steal straight.

Back in 1997, when I was chasing the paintings, I went to  a federal prison to see Myles J. Connor, a Massachusetts art thief of some renown. He spoke frankly about casing the Gardner in the 1980s with a “pal,” as he called him, an all-around criminal named Robert A. Donati. Donati, long since dead too, is known to have moved in Guarente’s orbit. Connor said he recalled pointing to a fluted Chinese bronze beaker (later stolen in the heist) and telling Donati how much he wanted it for himself. The beaker was attached to a table by a clunky and elaborate mechanical device, and evidence shows that the thieves spent a lot of precious time detaching it. A gift for Connor, who was in prison when the robbery occurred? I think so.

So two things stand out in the aftermath of last Monday’s announcement.

First, the crime was always a local job. Most art heists are. Having researched dozens of robberies involving Rembrandts (I co-wrote “Stealing Rembrandts” with Anthony M. Amore, the Gardner’s tight-lipped security chief,  in 2011), I can declare that if there is some debonair master collector-thief out there, we have yet to find him. The smartest thing police can do right after an art robbery is round up the usual suspects.

Second, museum security experts use many high-tech tools, and necessarily so. But the simplest things are always the best defense. One day when I was leaving the Gardner with Amore, he turned to the head of the night shift and said, quite soberly, “Don’t let anybody in.” That cardinal rule was broken soon after midnight on March 18, 1990. Unfortunately, the trail is still cold.


Also in 2010, we examined three of the stolen works:

This program aired on March 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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