By the end of a process like the one to put together an investigative podcast about the most sensational unsolved art heist in history, the only thing more cluttered than our brains is the cutting room floor. There are characters and storylines and theories that are so compelling, we just couldn't fit them all in or go quite as deeply with them as we'd have liked.
Enter a Last Seen live event. We — Kelly Horan, Jack Rodolico and Stephen Kurkjian — joined Ben Brock Johnson and the podcast’s fans at Faneuil Hall in Boston during the GlobeDocs Film Fest to speak candidly about the Gardner mystery and unveil what it takes to make this podcast happen.
Kelly shares that she refused to use the tired phrase found in most Gardner heist reporting, “Two men dressed as police officers…” and Jack tells us how the team tried to sneak in more of its favorite phrase, “They wanted that gu.” We go over everything from our favorite interviews to our best theories, harebrained and not.
Listen to a recording of the live event by clicking the red player button atop this post, or read the transcript below.
This episode was adapted for the web by Amy Gorel.
KELLY HORAN: From WBUR Boston and The Boston Globe, this is Last Seen. I'm Kelly Horan. By the end of a process like the one to put together an investigative podcast about the most sensational unsolved art heist in history, the only thing more cluttered than our brains is the cutting room floor. There are characters and storylines and theories that are so compelling, we just couldn't fit them all in or go quite as deeply with them as we'd have liked. Enter a Last Seen live event, a recording of which you're about to hear. Last Seen fans in the Boston area joined me and my colleagues Jack Rodolico and Stephen Kurkjian as he spoke candidly about the Gardner mystery and took the audience behind the scenes of the last year and a half of our reporting. The event took place at the Great Hall at Faneuil Hall in Boston and was part of the GlobeDocs Film Festival. And we were joined onstage by our WBUR colleague and host of the Endless Thread podcast Ben Brock Johnson.
BEN BROCK JOHNSON: Welcome, guys. How's it going?
STEPHEN KURKJIAN: All well.
HORAN: Very well.
JACK RODOLICO: Always good when we're with you, Ben.
JOHNSON: Likewise. I feel like you guys have been — you've been sitting down on the couches near where we do our work at the iLab for so long, having these, like, really deep conversations about the reporting that you're doing. And we've all been listening to the episodes as they come out, which has been incredible. But I'm really excited to talk about behind-the-scenes stuff with you, so thanks for being willing to do this. Kelly, I want to start with you. As you prepared yourself to tackle this story and this project, what were you most excited about?
HORAN: Well, I was most excited, I think, about the journalistic challenge of taking on a story that has been so often told, in many places and in many ways, and in trying to make it new and fresh. One of the things I vowed before I took it on was to never say the sentence, "Two men dressed as police officers..." Because I think that if you can't even change up the basic facts, if they lose their sharp edges, then, you know, how can you make it new? And so I wanted to go back to the beginning and bring listeners something that they hadn't heard. And it's been gratifying because I've heard from people who said, "Oh, I heard about a podcast of the Gardner heist, and I thought, so what? But then I heard the voices." And you hear the terror in a security guard's voice. You hear the outrage in a defense attorney's voice. You hear the disbelief in a suspect's voice. And that just made me glad that I picked radio 25 years ago because it's all about the voice. And then I also was wondering, can we make a podcast about art that people will want to listen to and that doesn't sound like "Masterpiece Theatre" and that makes you care that this is missing? And I think the jury is still out on that. But I have heard from people that they're happy when we talk about the art. So I think that...
JOHNSON: Wait. What's wrong with "Masterpiece Theatre"?
HORAN: I love — people who know me will tell you that this entire thing would have been a period costume drama. [Laughter.]
JOHNSON: Totally fair.
HORAN: But, you know, I think that it was the journalistic challenge of taking a story that is out there for everyone to read about and to bring new things to it and to advance it, I think. So I hope we did that.
JOHNSON: Jack, talk to me about why you think this story is still riveting. I mean, it's been 28 years, right? Why is it still compelling?
RODOLICO: I think the grabbiest thing about the story is that the FBI hasn't solved it, right? And it's — and that's not a dig at the FBI. It's a really difficult case to solve. But there are a lot of superlatives when you look at this crime, the way it was done. There are parts of it that play on ideas you have in your mind of the way somebody would pull off a heist — dressing up as cops and tricking someone and taking a Rembrandt. You know, there are certain things — even if you don't know anything about art, which I would put myself firmly in that category, you know who Rembrandt is, loosely. So those things grab you. And then all you have to do is dig just under the surface, and you realize it does not line up with your thinking about what an art heist is at all. You know, there are no catsuit — what's the word? Cat burglars, right?
HORAN: Catsuited burglars.
RODOLICO: Yes, there's no cat burglars. And there's really almost no good information about where they are. I think we've told a good story despite that. But one thing that Steve said from the very beginning, which was terrifying to think about how we were going to do this as a podcast, was — but it really stuck in my mind — is, the whole, everything is feathers. When you look at this story, when you look at what the FBI has done — and they have worked really diligently — it's feathers. It's still theories after almost three decades. So you can kind of implant whatever you want on that in your mind. And then you start looking for facts. And they're fascinating. But they still don't lead you to the art. I think if it was solved 10 years after, we wouldn't be talking about it now.
JOHNSON: Steve, you're the OG here, I feel like. You've been covering this story for decades, right? You wrote a book about the case called "Master Thieves." So you bring this level of experience with the story that I think is really unique. And I won't pretend that reporters don't have a reputation for being like a dog with a bone when it comes to a certain story. But why haven't you let this thing go?
KURKJIAN: Thank you. That's a great question. And I think it all goes down to the title of Nat Hentoff's biography "Boston Boy." And I am the "Boston Boy." I grew up in Boston, went to public schools in Boston and joined the Globe at a young age and joined the Spotlight team when it was founded. And understand, the Spotlight team thrives because of the kind of reporting it does, purposeful reporting. And that's the way I felt about this story right from the start — that this needed some hard reporting. And as an investigative reporter for my career, I do hard reporting. And I kept thinking there's a higher purpose to this. And understand, as we spoke here, 28 years, the largest art theft in world history, and it happened here in my city, in our city. And I just felt that if I continued on it and gave it more coverage, it would reach a larger audience, which is going back to why I feel this podcast is so special. And I'm just thrilled that I've been aboard with both Jack and Kelly and their team at WBUR. The Globe has done a lot with this story, but it needed this partnership. It needed this other media to get heard. And I hope somehow, soon enough, we'll get a recovery. That's my hope.
JOHNSON: So in any narrative, it's the people that can make or break the story. It's good news that Last Seen is buttressed not just by this incredible story, which, of course, we'll get into even more, but by a really colorful cast of characters we get to meet in this podcast. And, again, I've been lucky enough to hear some of those, both as a listener and as somebody who's been talking to you guys about the show as you've been making it. But it seems like there's an endless number of them. We get to meet these people, explore their intertwining relationships. Steve, do you have a favorite moment, a favorite character or a favorite relationship between characters in the podcast?
KURKJIAN: I met a bad guy who worked with a good guy to do a remarkable thing here, which was to open up a crime syndicate about to do a major robbery of a armored car depot. And Dave Nadolski is his name. He's the FBI agent who got this young man to do all sorts of derring-do, but only because of the trust that they built with one another, agent to an informant were we able to avoid an amazing, amazing art theft — excuse me — a bank, armored car robbery that only because of the trust that these two men had.
JOHNSON: Jack, what about you?
RODOLICO: The interview that I can't shake from my memory was an attorney named Ryan McGuigan. And we interviewed him at 'BUR. There wasn't even a studio that day. We just sat in an office. And so there was nothing — there was no scene built around him. There was nothing particularly spectacular about where we interviewed him. But he is a fascinating defense attorney because he defends the latest, I'll call the latest person of interest in the Gardner investigation, which is a Connecticut, aging Connecticut mobster octogenarian named Bobby Gentile. He's sitting in prison right now because of his suspected connection to the paintings — not to the heist, but to the paintings. And Ryan has defended this guy tooth and nail for six years. The FBI set his client up on two different stings. They got him to commit crimes twice. They held all this pressure over him to try to get him to talk about the paintings, and he never did. And the interesting thing about McGuigan is that he has a lot of theories about why that is that expand beyond, well, my client has nothing to do with it, right? I mean, that's what every defense attorney is going to say. He's defending mobsters, so you can't totally trust the guy. Let's be honest, right? But what he has that very few people have — very, very few people — is that he has looked inside the FBI investigation. He's looked over the fence with a very particular lens and with an eye on defending his client. But there are so few people who would speak to us who had any experience with the FBI and their tactics. And he makes a really compelling case that the FBI has tried again and again to squeeze individuals by helping them commit other crimes or catching them in the act of committing other crimes and then then saying, "OK, we're going to send you to jail if you don't talk." And it hasn't worked yet. I mean, it's a good tactic. It often works. But it leaves you scratching your head as to, why won't these guys talk? Is it because they don't know something, or they do something and they still won't say something about it? But he's just sort of lived it in a way that very few people have. I mean, he's exasperated with his client. He's exasperated with the FBI. He doesn't like anybody who has ever touched the Gardner investigation, and he can tell you why and when he stopped liking them. So, I like him a lot.
JOHNSON: Kelly, I know you have some favorite characters as well. I really want to hear from you about Isabella Stewart Gardner, though, because this is the person that I didn't know anything about before hearing this show. And she's had a huge impact, not only in the city, but she's a really important character, obviously, in this story. So can you talk a little bit about her?
HORAN: If I must.
JOHNSON: It was one of my favorite parts of one of the episodes that we've heard so far, is hearing you talk about her.
HORAN: So, you know, I was so glad to be able to do a true crime podcast without the dead-woman trope, and then I realized there is a dead woman at the heart of my podcast. [Laughs.] Except she's so alive to me. Isabella Stewart Gardner, I would say, is the animating force of this podcast, of this investigation. We are all here tonight because of what she built over in the Fens. And it's true. I do love her. She wasn't uncomplicated. And it's like, well, all of the characters that we bring to you in the podcast, it's not one thing or another. It's not good or bad or black or white. I mean, there were nuances. But what she valued, among other things, was art, and so that's what she gave us. And in order for me, before I could really understand this heist and what it meant — I've never been good at numbers, I fudged my way through an econ major, and my dad's in the front row and can tell you all about that — but $500 million didn't say anything to me. So I wanted to understand what that loss would've meant to her, so I read about her. I read her correspondence. And what I realized is that each of these pieces that was stolen was something that she chose, and not only something that she chose, it was something that she put in its place. So when you go to the Gardner Museum and you see it where it is, it's where she wanted you to see it. I love control freaks, and I just thought that is, that's something to aspire to. But she built the whole museum as well. And I love this story. I mean, she drove the architect, probably, to the brink because he'd have his Italian stonemasons that she brought over erect a wall. And she'd come in and say, "No, take it down, do it over." And then when she was frustrated that her stonemasons couldn't re-create the exact Tuscan pink stucco for her courtyard, she climbed a ladder and she did it herself. So, she's my kind of lady.
And to understand what was lost, I'll take the Vermeer, "The Concert," as my example. So, you know, many of the paintings that she collected were sight unseen. She had dealers abroad who said, "This is why you should own this." But for "The Concert," she traveled to Paris, and she went to the auction house, and she sat there. She didn't bid herself; it would've been untoward. But every time the bid was raised higher, she would raise a handkerchief to her face to signal to her secret buyer in the room, go higher. And she went higher, and she beat the Louvre Museum. Furious, they were furious when they found that it was going to an American woman. "The Concert" was her first major acquisition, and it put her on the map as a collector. But why did she love it? She loved it because her first love was music. And some say that her taste in music was more sophisticated than her taste in art, which — and in "The Concert," what we see — John Updike wrote a poem called "Stolen" about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. And in it, he says, the concert is stopped between two notes. And you have a woman going like this. And Gardner, who loved music, responded to that, I think, viscerally. And now it's gone. And that, for me, was my way into understanding why it mattered.
JOHNSON: Steve, you grew up with the museum. You saw the paintings. So talk about how, in some ways, maybe we as a society didn't value this work until it was no longer ours.
KURKJIAN: Yeah. I've thought long and hard about a recovery. How does a recovery happen? What this needs is, it needs the help of the public. What's been missing from this, except for one or two times, is a public appeal — a public appeal that would be powered by a social media campaign. And the more I thought about this in the summer of 2014, when every one of you kids were pouring a bucket of ice over your head, to raise money for ALS research. You know what that did that summer? It raised $80 million for ALS research. And I thought to myself, that's what's needed for this case, it's some media outreach 'cause that type of campaign would reach the people who most need to be reached, which is, let's say, the have-nots in society, those people who know something. They don't know where the artwork is. I believe the FBI when they say the two thieves who stole it are dead. But they may have let their cousins or sisters or whatever know, "I know something," and it's those people who have to view this as a loss to all of us, including them. Why? Because this is the artwork of the ages. Everything passes. Art endures. And this is our art. Mrs. Gardner put those on the wall for us, put them on the wall for my father.
My father was a refugee from the Armenian genocide as a 3-year-old and came to Watertown and had, showed interest in art. They sent him — they got him a scholarship. And every afternoon, he would go back to the museum free of charge. She wanted all of us to be able to enjoy and be inspired by art. And that's as well in the bad guy world, in the have-nots. Their child, too, their grandchild, too, could be inspired by that art as my father was and became a successful commercial artist. So that's the hope that we, maybe even out of HUBweek, of GlobeDocs, an event like this, that a campaign can be built with social media to tell the world it's not ratting on your bad guys; it's not ratting on your third cousin who may have had something to know about something; it's being able to inspire your children and your grandchildren with getting this artwork back. Remember what happened when Tom Brady's T-shirt that he wore, there were torchlight searches going on in my neighborhood. [Laughs.] There's Rembrandts missing. There's Vermeer missing. I want that enthusiasm to come to...
JOHNSON: Well-said. Now might be a good time to say if anyone here has the art, feel free to let us know. I think there's some money involved. So let's just do a lightning round here — a real quick lightning round. We have a special guest coming up, and I want to give them proper time. But, you know, one of the amazing things about this story is just the theories of, you know, all these crazy theories of what might have happened to this artwork. And you guys chase a lot of them. So, Kelly, lightning round, you know, I don't know, 30 seconds. What's your favorite crazy theory about what happened here?
HORAN: I have taken no end of ridicule for my theory. I just want you to know because I want to feel your support and love right now. My theory is that a man named Paul Stirling Vanderbilt, alias Paul Stirling Vanderbilt, who tried to rob a museum in upstate New York in 1980, returned to Boston to do it right a decade later. His name is Brian McDevitt from Swampscott, Massachusetts.
JOHNSON: Wow. OK. Jack?
RODOLICO: You going for a harebrained theory or, like, what I think happened?
JOHNSON: I mean, I'm a fan of harebrained, but that's just me.
RODOLICO: OK. Harebrained would be, if I am to believe...
JOHNSON: Aliens. No.
RODOLICO: You know...
RODOLICO: You ask the questions. I answer them, OK?
JOHNSON: OK. Fair, fair.
RODOLICO: Aliens. No. If I am to believe the former FBI agent, who is the founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, that he got this close to getting some criminals to sell him the Vermeer and the Rembrandt "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee," then they were at least 2007, in France or Corsica because that was the theory at the time. He was talking to these mobsters in Miami. They were connected to these criminals back on the other side of the ocean. They had really good intelligence coming in from French officials that were saying, "Yeah, these guys are talking about it on wiretaps that they are there," and...
JOHNSON: All right.
RODOLICO: And maybe — sorry, that was probably more than 30 seconds.
JOHNSON: Your 30 seconds is definitely.
RODOLICO: That theory keeps going from there — Corsican mobsters, Corsican mobsters.
JOHNSON: Corsican mobsters, OK. And door No. 3.
KURKJIAN: My favorite anecdote here on where they are takes me into Bobby Gentile's living room, where I had spent three days only fueled by Regina's Pizza. He said, I'm only talking to you because you bring Regina's Pizza. This was during that very brief six-month period that he wasn't behind bars. So at the end of our third day of interviewing, he said to me, "Shut off your tape recorder; I want to ask you some questions." I said, "Sure, Bob." I shut off my tape recorder, and he said to me, "What do I get all about — what do I get for all this information I've given to you?" And I thought to myself, what's he getting at? Maybe he thinks I'm an FBI agent, and he wants — and he doesn't want to say anything because he's been denying, denying, denying for all that, all those three days that he had anything to do with it. So I put out a harebrained idea of he and I would write a book, but, Bobby, I said, I need to know the truth. No more BS. No more denying. When did you get the paintings? What did you do with them? And where are they now? You tell me that, we'll write, you know, an incredible bestseller. You'll get all the money in the world, and you'll get the reward. And I'll get what I've all, now long wanted for 20 years, which is a story about what happened to our, what happened to the Gardner's paintings.
Bobby looks at me, and he doesn't say, "You're crazy." He puts his head down, and he keeps it down for 10 seconds. And then he puts his head up and says, "No, no, I don't know anything." So I get out to my car, say goodbye, and he — Bobby says — I said goodbye to Bobby, and I call Ryan McGuigan, his lawyer, and I said, "McGuigan, he's been lying to you. He's been lying the FBI. He's been lying to me for five hours." And says, "What the hell are you talking about? What did he say?" And I told him about waiting for 10 seconds before turning down my offer to tell me the whole thing. I said, "He knows something. He knows something." He says, "You know what he was doing during that 10 seconds, Kurkjian?" I said, "No, what, what? He was waiting. He was thinking." He said, "He wasn't thinking. He doesn't have anything. He was thinking to con you out of $10,000." And he says, "I know you wouldn't have given it to him, right, Steve?" You're right. But another, you know, dead end.
JOHNSON: Fair enough. I think Kelly won that round for keeping it under 30 seconds. But all of those — all of those ideas are good.
JOHNSON: Speaking of whodunit, it is now time to welcome our special surprise guest to the stage. His name is David Nadolski, a retired FBI agent who spent 21 years in the bureau. Welcome, David. I'll give you a fist bump, fist bump. There we go.
DAVID NADOLSKI: Stand up. Stand up. Come on. Stand up. Meet my twin brother.
KURKJIAN: We dress alike.
NADOLSKI: Yeah, Mommy still dresses us alike. [Laughs.]
KURKJIAN: Nadolski and Kurkjian — somewhere they meet.
JOHNSON: So for those of you who have been listening, David is a key character in Episode 3. And, David, welcome. Thank you. Thank you for being here tonight. We appreciate it.
NADOLSKI: Oh, my pleasure.
JOHNSON: Earlier this evening, Steve shared that he sort of really appreciated the relationship between you and one of your confidential informants, Anthony or Tony Romano. Now, this is a reminder to everyone, Tony Romano was a member of the TRC Auto Electric shop crew, the headquarters for mobster Carmello Merlino's gang. Tony was tasked with giving you info on any conversations that had anything to do with the Gardner art. He was the man who came to you with the information, which resulted in a raid for another heist. Dave, talk about your relationship with Tony.
NADOLSKI: Well, Tony actually contacted me first at one time, before all this happened. We had a robbery at the John Quincy Adams museum, and several irreplaceable books were stolen at that time. And I was told that there was a prisoner at Concord prison who was interested in talking to me about this because he knows who did it. So I grab one of the detectives from Quincy, and we ran out to Concord. And across the street from the prison is a barracks for the state police. And he was working on their cars. This guy is a mechanic. And so he told one of the one of the troopers, he said, "You know, I know something about this crime. Could you help me get in front of an agent?" So that's what the trooper did. He contacted our office. I was called. I went there with the detective. We sat, found Tony in a room upstairs in the barracks, and he was just sitting in a chair like this. And so we sat down in front of him, and he was, he was wearing his prison dungarees, which are blue jeans, blue jean shirt, short sleeves, and his arms were covered in tattoos.
JOHNSON: For those of you listening at home, the way he was sitting was sort of lax in his chair and his head looking at the ceiling.
NADOLSKI: Right, exactly.
NADOLSKI: And so we said, "Hey, hi, how are you doing? I understand you want to talk to us about this crime." And he just sort of looked at us and went back and looked up at the ceiling and didn't say much. And so I looked over at the detective, and I thought, you know, "What's with this guy?" And I said, "Well, you know, Tony, I know you got to get back to the prison here pretty soon, and we got things to do, but if you want to talk to us about this particular crime, we're here. If it's a bad time, we'll come back."
So he says,"OK." He goes, "Kevin Gilday did it." And I said, "Oh, who's Kevin Gilday? And he said, "He's a guy from Quincy. He's a burglar, and I've known him practically my whole life. And we were in jail together, and he told me he was going to do this type of crime. He want — he was really eyeballing that particular job." And so I said, "Well, thanks. I appreciate that." And long story short, it was Kevin Gilday. And it was Tony's information to me that that helped solve that crime. We did recover the books. Gilday did five years. And all was well. So I called the parole board and said, "Hey, you know, I want to talk to you about one of your guys." And of course, they said, "Oh, s---. What did — who is it? And what did he do now?" So I said, "Well, he did something good, actually. His name's Anthony Romano, and I think he's coming up for parole. And I want you to know that he provided the information that allowed me to solve this case and get these books back, so he did a good job." So they say, "Well, thank you. We appreciate that. You don't usually don't get good information on guys, so." And that was how I met Tony anyhow, in answer to the question.
JOHNSON: So the raid that was the result of Tony's work with the FBI, with you, brought a couple of key suspects into custody. You were there when everyone arrived, and you tried to get information out of these folks coming in about the Gardner.
NADOLSKI: How did that come up?
JOHNSON: Yeah, well, just tell me about those conversations.
NADOLSKI: Oh, yeah. Sure.
JOHNSON: Were you like, we do as reporters, you had a little notebook, and you're kind of yelling at them as they get brought in?
NADOLSKI: I worked with the agent who was working on that particular case. And so after, you know, this whole thing came down with the armored car robbery, we went and thought, well, what the heck? We'll you give them — if they did know anything about this particular crime, we sat down with each one of them individually after the arrest for the armored, attempted armored car robbery and just said, "You know, you're really in a lot of trouble here. And as such, you know, you're looking at a lot of time. However, if you've got anything to say about the Gardner, that's — that would help you." And each one said no. So that's how, that's the last time I talked to anybody about the Gardner.
JOHNSON: Fair enough. What makes some people talk and others not talk? What happened when some of these folks realized that Tony Romano was an informant?
NADOLSKI: Well, obviously, he was in a world of hurt because he had to leave town. And we had discussed all that beforehand originally. And I had to go before the parole board, by the way, before we did anything and ask their permission and get their permission to work with Tony, who was on parole. And when I explained to them that the only way into stopping this attempted crime, which was going to be the robbery of the Loomis Fargo vault facility in Easton, Massachusetts, where tens of millions of dollars was kept, was if we had somebody on the inside collecting information as the planning went forward. And they bought it and said, "OK, Tony can work with you." And then I said, but, you know, when it all ends, they're going to know he was involved, so he's going to have to go into the witness security program and leave the state of Massachusetts and have his state parole transferred to some other location, which they agreed to. So the next thing was to talk to Tony about this whole idea and say, "Tony, if this works out and the information you provide is true and accurate, and we build a case, and it comes down, then clearly, they're going to know, 'OK, there's five of us in this, committing this crime; there's four of us sitting here. Where's Tony?' " So they'll know you cooperated. And he had to think about that for a long time because he was a drug addict. And the reason he was in prison a lot, which he was, was because he would, when he got out, he would get back on drugs, and then he'd start doing holdups. You know, the thing that motivated him, I believe, was a desire to do something right for a change. And he did.
JOHNSON: Why do you think the paintings haven't been found yet?
NADOLSKI: Why haven't they been located?
NADOLSKI: Oh, I don't know. I have no idea.
JOHNSON: Fair. That's an episode. Follow-up... Who do you think did it?
NADOLSKI: I got to tell you: I don't know.
NADOLSKI: I don't think it was Carmello Merlino, who seems to be a prime suspect popping up left and right. He's dead now. But, I mean, we talked to him several times. And we concluded Mel really doesn't have them. And he is trying to get the reward money, but who isn't? So...
KURKJIAN: There was time when he said to Tony, "I don't have them, but Chicovsky does. So I'll get them from Chicovsky, and then we'll turn them in for $5 million." And that's when Dave sits down with the FBI agent on the Gardner case with Chicovsky at the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain. And Chicovsky says to him, "Listen, I don't have him, but Merlino may. I'll get them from Merlino." So at that point, in my mind, it's, you know, a hall of mirrors in the intelligence world. This is a hall of con men. I would not want his job because even if we don't come up with it, we can tell this extraordinary story.
NADOLSKI: Yeah, yeah. Neil Cronin was the case agent from the bureau who was handling the Gardner case. And he had heard this song and dance from a lot of different people. So, you know, his thinking was, "OK, if you say you've got them or can get them or whatever, whenever you get them, I want you to take a picture. You have the paintings, you have you, and you have a newspaper from today's date, with today's date on it in front of it so I know what,you know, this is really the day, you know, a recent picture." And nobody could do that. Nobody ever of all the people that came forward, and there's lots of them with information, nobody could ever establish ownership or possession.
JOHNSON: Well, keep listening. Thank you so much for talking to us from your space of expertise and for expanding on the question, I don't know. We appreciate it. We're going to take some audience questions now. But, just, I'm going to ask for another — thank you very much, Candice. I'm going to ask for another, like, super quick lightning round with just Kelly and Jack because you guys haven't talked for a minute. So there's only so much we can fit into these 30-minute episodes, right? And there are plenty of them that everyone should go and listen to. But what's something that didn't make it, didn't make it off the cutting room floor, or ended up on the cutting room floor, I should say. Kelly, what's a story or an angle that you wish you could have chased that you didn't quite get to chase?
HORAN: Whitey Bulger. There is a theory that the Gardner art is in Northern Ireland. And I was in northern... I was in Ireland in May. I was there with this Scotland Yard, former Scotland Yard undercover man who was absolutely convinced that the key to solving the Gardner case is in Ireland. And I so want to do the story of Ireland and the Gardner art and at least this one thief because it's so complex. And I think there's so much there, but I don't know that we'll have time.
JOHNSON: Season 2.
JOHNSON: What about you, Jack?
JOHNSON: Steve's giving him suggestions.
RODOLICO: Good idea — not what I was thinking. There were so many art thefts in New England before the Gardner heist. There were hundreds of them. And there was a period of time when I was convinced that we could do multiple episodes — we could — on all of the crimes that predated the Gardner and what those tell us about the Gardner. And there were people who were experts at disarming alarm systems in small museums, other people who were good at tricking cops in places like Greenwich, Connecticut, and on the North Shore and on Cape Cod. There were so many paintings stolen in New England in the 20 or so years that never came back because they were lower-profile. They weren't Vermeers. They weren't Rembrandts. And we sat down with one guy who stole a good chunk of them, and he would not go on the record. And the thing that he said that haunts me about the Gardner heist is that when he had no place else to sell... He would try to sell them on the black market. He would try to sell them to a dealer. Sometimes he would sell them back to the FBI. If none of that worked, he would burn them. He said he did it hundreds of times.
JOHNSON: This is — oh, sorry. Go ahead.
RODOLICO: This is not lightning. This is not lightning, sorry. There is no lightning with the Gardner. You can't ask a lightning question on the Gardner. I'm not David Nadolski. I don't have a one-word answer. I wish I did. I wish I did. But that just makes, unfortunately makes a lot of sense as a possibility for what happened to the Gardner heist — that it could have happened. I hope it didn't. It's a good chance it didn't. But I could never shake that since he said it.
JOHNSON: This is an excellent transition to our first audience question, which is, what is the likelihood that any of the artwork has been destroyed? So anybody want to take a crack at that percentage, over/under? I don't know.
KURKJIAN: I'll just recount one interview I had with a guy who was — it was the first chapter of my book. It was a guy named Louis Royce. And Louis had scouted the Gardner for a score since growing up in South Boston delivering papers to Whitey Bulger's house, he used to tell me. But he told me that — he didn't drink, and I was pouring myself another glass of wine, taking my notes in an interview — he said to me, "There's no way they would be destroyed." I said, "Why?" He said, "You see that bottle? The bottle isn't important, but the cork is. We'll hold onto the cork." And he reminded me, he said "Every mobster you see whose house is raided, it takes two days to empty a mobster's house." Why? 'Cause they keep everything. They're pack rats. They're not hoarders, but they're pack rats. They don't destroy anything. So it's not much evidence, but it's one thing that keeps me going to stay on the story. It's within the 781, 508 area code, somewhere, there are 13 pieces of priceless art.
JOHNSON: Fair enough. Here's another question: Crimes always have collateral damage. Who or what is the biggest collateral damage of the Gardner heist, Kelly?
HORAN: I would say that we all are because we don't get to see these works. I mean, I really mean it. Anne Hawley, the former director of the Gardner Museum, likens the loss to what if you could never hear Beethoven or Louis Armstrong. I say, what if you could never hear Prince? But I think that it's true. If you value these works as a piece of who we are, then we all lose that they're gone.
JOHNSON: This is an interesting question that I think you guys get at in the show. But I'd love to hear you talk about it a little bit more. Why do you think the robbers stole the pieces they did? And there's a little sort of sub-question here. The Chinese beaker, I believe I'm reading that right, has always been a fascinating choice.
HORAN: We have a lot of theories about this.
JOHNSON: Go on.
HORAN: Come in close. OK, so what we know is that Rembrandt is the most stolen artist because his body of work is so vast. So it's easier to fake an attribution to Rembrandt. So we know that, from the thieves’ movements, we know that they went to the Dutch Room first. We know that they took the Rembrandts first. How do you explain the Chinese beaker? It's not even that pretty.
HORAN: How do you explain the bronze eagle finial? In our reporting, we met the art thief who said that he used to case the Gardner Museum with another art thief. And our art thief said, "I wanted that beaker," because he's an aficionado of Asian art. And his friend wanted the eagle. And so that makes sense. Were they trophy grabs? Did they just snatch and grab? We don't know. But what we can tell you about the beaker is that it took some effort. It wasn't just something sitting on a table or knocked over. They had to cut through layers of fabric on the table and then pry it off of a metal base. They wanted that gu. So maybe we know who did it or who inspired it. They wanted that gu.
RODOLICO: They wanted that gu is a line that was in one of our episodes like eight times. And it has to be there. And we just were debating how many times — how many times do we need to say it? And the good thing that we're here is that we got to say it twice.
JOHNSON: We just got two more.
RODOLICO: I just want to say, they wanted that gu.
HORAN: I've been made fun a lot over the course of this by my esteemed colleagues. And I've been promised by other people my own cross-stitch. And I think my cross-stitch will say...
JOHNSON: They wanted that gu.
HORAN: ...They wanted that gu.
JOHNSON: Fair. I want to pose this question to the self-proclaimed twins down there. Gentlemen, this comes from Zoe, age 10. Were you ever scared interviewing someone?
NADOLSKI: Not me. I had a gun.
NADOLSKI: What about you?
JOHNSON: Solid one-liners from this guy.
KURKJIAN: No, I mean, the work that we do as reporters — you don't do the dangerous work that these guys, these people do. You announce yourself. You tell them what you want. You go to their seconds, which is usually an attorney. You show up. You ask them the questions you promised you would ask them. You take meticulous notes. And you tell them you're going to write it straight. That's all you have going for you. But, you know, as reporters, we ask the questions that any of you would ask. But you never surprise people. You never — and you never disappoint them as far as writing it straight. So that's why I'm — never ever been afraid.
JOHNSON: I'm not sure who this is directed to, so I'll let anybody take it. How did you get access to confidential 302s, which reminds me that tax season is coming. I don't know. That's just like a, I'm not sure.
NADOLSKI: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I don't think there were any confidential 302s involved, were there? There were?
NADOLSKI: A 302 is an FBI report.
HORAN: We got some. That's all I'm comfortable saying.
NADOLSKI: My brother...
JOHNSON: Fair enough.
NADOLSKI: My brother is nodding his head.
RODOLICO: If we wanted to tell you, we would've told you in the podcast.
HORAN: We got them.
JOHNSON: Fair. I guess we're not getting an answer on that one. Oh, my lightning round suggestions have now been incorporated into audience questions. I like it. Lightning round, apparently this is for all of you, what painting is your favorite, and why?
RODOLICO: Of the ones that were stolen, presumably?
JOHNSON: I think we could go with that. Yeah.
JOHNSON: We'll start with Kelly.
HORAN: Who, me? Oh...
HORAN: I don't know. I haven't seen them.
HORAN: I'm really... I'm not being flip. I want to see them. You know, I'm...
JOHNSON: What's the — that's a painting, isn't it?
HORAN: So we have "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee" [on screen], and what I love about "Storm On The" — I can tell you what I like because I've read about them. But I haven't — you know, so, OK, I have this idea that when you see a piece of art, it's an interactive experience. You are experiencing what the artist wants — intended for you to experience. But you're also experiencing in spite of yourself what you bring to it. I don't know what I bring to it. I've never stood before it. I can tell you what it was like to stand in front of the stretcher that once held "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee." That almost made me cry. It was like seeing a dead body. And that's really, that was a moment when I realized, "Holy moly, there are victims in this story." And I would love the opportunity to see these works. I would say "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee" just because I love that Rembrandt painted himself in. He's like, yo... And I like that.
JOHNSON: Definitely not the Chinese beaker, you're saying. It's not...
HORAN: I didn't mean to put down the Chinese beaker.
RODOLICO: Somebody wanted it.
HORAN: I just meant to say someone really wanted it.
RODOLICO: I think that "The Storm On The Sea" is the most dramatic, and it's the one I've thought a lot about. But the one I'm most perplexed by is the Vermeer, "The Concert," because I don't think I've ever seen a Vermeer. And they, there's only 34 or so. I say or so 'cause it's not totally clear exactly how many there are of his, but there's not a lot. And my understanding is that he was this master of light. And you don't — that does not come across in a photo of that painting, which is all I've ever seen. I look at it, and I can say, "OK, I guess that's a masterpiece." Like, what do I know? But I have the feeling that if you stood in front of it, you would get it. And apparently, Norman Rockwell was really inspired by Vermeer. He does things with light. And that was something that connected with me at one point. When I looked at a Rockwell in the process of reporting this, I was like, "Oh, that's Vermeer, that's light. I get it now." But I still don't know what it would be like to see the shadow and the light cast across the floor next to the people singing. And that's the thing, I think, I'd most like to see.
KURKJIAN: Yeah, I think the painting that I would be most interested in seeing of, I mean, this "Sea Of Galilee" is the only time he painted the sea, that Rembrandt painted the sea. He loved it so much he painted — etched himself in hanging over the gunnels. And there were enough people who appreciated art and knew his work that they put a little border up so that people didn't point at, put their finger on the canvas. But my — the one I want to know most about is the Manet that was stolen from the Blue Room. And if you haven't heard the second episode, in which we talk of the possibility of there being a theft within the theft, that in fact the bad guys only thought they stole 12. In fact, it was — when, in fact, there was an extra painting stolen from the Blue Room and how that fits into this whole extraordinary hall of, you know, hall of con men, hall of mirrors, but also hall of masterpieces. This — it's extraordinary that that painting was stolen from a room where there are no signs of bad guys being in the room. Everywhere else, bad guys' footsteps are shown because the museum had a motion detector equipment installed. There is no footsteps of bad guys in that room. Yet, that room is missing the Manet. So that's the one I want to — that's the one I would like to, one if I could see, the Manet.
NADOLSKI: I was afraid you were going to call my name. I got to tell you, my favorite painting is probably "Dogs Playing Poker."
JOHNSON: Totally fair, totally fair.
KURKJIAN: You see why we love this guy?
JOHNSON: I think we can get you a copy of that. I think that one is...
KURKJIAN: A reporter's best source.
JOHNSON: Totally fair. I like this question. What happens to stolen paintings in general? What kinds of lives do they have after they've been stolen? I always thought that they'd just get placed in Dr. Evil's lair above the sharks with laser beams on their heads. But how does this stuff exist in the real world?
RODOLICO: So it's, it's, it goes back to, it's not what you think, which is people who steal art are not, generally, are not art thieves. They're criminals. And stealing a painting is part of a portfolio of dealing drugs and dealing with weapons and things like that. And art is often just a commodity. It's kind of stupid to steal a Rembrandt. Like, there are a couple of really good reasons to do it — to get yourself out of prison. But you can't sell it. It's a lot smarter to steal from, I'm, like, endorsing this. [Laughs.] If you want to steal a painting, go to your local gallery. But you don't want to steal a portrait. You know, you don't want to steal something really distinctive. And there are enough people who steal paintings who understand that. Kelly and I talk a lot about, in the mornings about our Google alert about art thefts. And 99 percent of them is, somebody walked into a gallery, you know, with a camera on them and ripped it off the wall. And they're trying to find the guy. That's a lot of art theft. And when they find them, they find them, you know, that — they have another criminal, they have a long criminal record. So, and then sometimes, and I'll just add to that, in the U.S., it's not very common to steal from a major museum. In Europe, it's really common. And think about how much more art they have, and think about the churches that they have that are full of art. And just broaden your definition of art — anything historical, anything that's unique, right? So there's more an organized crime element to art theft in Europe, where there is a black market and there is a ransom market. In the U.S., the Gardner heist is the total anomaly. There's just really almost nothing like it.
HORAN: Well, and to piggyback off what Jack said, I was astonished to learn in the course of our reporting that ISIS supports its mission by stealing art, by looting antiquities. And so...
RODOLICO: And the Taliban did before them.
HORAN: And the Taliban did before it. And it's — you know, and so sometime in the 1970s, what we saw across Europe were these, as Jack said, unprotected churches, poorly guarded museums, was art theft. And it kind of pierced this veil, I think. You know, I think of an honor system. And I think we sort of think of, you know, you don't — who would steal from a church? Who would steal from a museum? But it began to happen. And art-napping as a term emerged as a thing. And the people who steal art we want to think of as this kind of, you know, goatee-stroking Dr. No in his lair with his masterpiece. And really, the evidence shows that it's much cruder. It's not about the art. It's not about loving the art. It's about trading it as a commodity. And if you were to sell it, you would only get about 10 percent of the value. And as Jack said, I'm not advocating. But you would want to go for something that isn't very well-known — just a tip.
JOHNSON: OK. So I have a last question from the audience here. Are there any surviving relatives of Isabella Stewart Gardner? If so, what do they think?
HORAN: I don't know what they think. Yes, there are. There was a lovely man, I think, I tried to get an interview with him. Jack, his name is Jack Gardner. Isabella Stewart Gardner's husband was named Jack. Her son, who died before he was 2, was named Jack. I don't know what they think. I know that from my contact with the museum that they care deeply about Isabella Stewart Gardner's legacy and that they want to see these works back. And they were very excited to know that we were doing something that might help in the effort to, at the very least, raise awareness of what these things look like so that on the off chance that someone sees it, they can say something.
JOHNSON: Thank you all for being here. Thank you to Kelly, Jack, Steve, Dave. Please give them a hand.
Last Seen is a production from WBUR and The Boston Globe. Digital content was produced in partnership with The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. Read more on the Gardner heist from The ARTery.