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Two Decades Later, Gardner Heist Mystery Remains

This article is more than 10 years old.

It will be 19 years ago next week that Boston was the scene of the largest art theft in history.

There are numerous theories about how thieves pulled off the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But nearly two decades later, investigators appear no closer to recovering the stolen art treasures.

WBUR's David Boeri reports.

BOERI: Thirteen paintings and objects gone and nineteen years lost, the city will celebrate another St. Patrick's day and the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum will mark another anniversary of empty frames.

U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan says the case is cold.

SULLIVAN: No, I wish I could tell you that there were charges pending. I wish I could tell you we had a number one suspect that we were ready to put the cuffs [on] or that the number one suspect essentially has come clean.

BOERI: Despite the five million dollar reward that the Gardner Museum has posted for the return of the paintings, but no one has come forward. And although their collective value may exceed five hundred million dollars, their notoriety may make them worthless even on the black market says Geoff Kelly the FBI case agent.

KELLY: In the cases, and I think it's the case with the Gardner Museum, they're impossible to sell.

BOERI: So much time has passed since they were stolen that the statute of limitations has run out on the crime of stealing the paintings.

Though the current U.S. attorney could charge someone for possessing the stolen paintings, he's taken a different position.

SULLIVAN: What is the real purpose of the Gardner Museum investigation? Is it to prosecute the person or persons that were involved in the heist of is the return of the art work? Here this art work is irreplaceable. And here we are 2009 and we're saying let's try to encourage people to come forward with any information no matter how small they might think it is or how culpable they may be and encourage them to provide the information so we can get the artwork back. And if it means immunity we're certainly receptive to it.

BOERI: Yet the cold case keeps circling back to cold. Looking at the cast of characters who've come into public view as suspects or would be deal makers, private investigator Charlie Moore of Plymouth has this assessment.

WAVE: If you take a look at all of them or almost all of them. They either were in jail then, are in jail now, or they're dead.

BOERI: So if they were in jail then, they couldn't have done it. If they're dead, we don't know that they did it. And if they're in jail now, they have reasons to trade to get out, but they're not.

WAVE: That's true.

BOERI: So where are we at the end of the day Charlie?

WAVE: I don't think we're any closer to actually getting the paintings today as we were day after St. Paddy's 1990.

BOERI: Which takes us back to the investigation itself.

Geoff Kelly is the one FBI case agent on the Gardner.

BOERI to KELLY: How much of your time do you spend daily on this case?

KELLY: It's difficult to put a number on it because it depends on when you ask me. If there's a good breaking lead on it, if I get a tip that I think has some substance to it, that might be all I work for weeks: just this one case. There's always a part of my week that I spend on the Gardner Museum.

BOERI: If you could ask for it, what kind of resources would you ask for?

KELLY: I'm happy with the resources we have.

BOERI: Kelly says he's responding to everything that needs to be done on the case, and the U.S. Attorney agrees.

Others, like Charlie Moore say that both 9/11 and the Whitey Bulger investigation caused a big shift of priorities earlier.

The frustration has been greatest at the Museum itself, where Anne Hawley became director just months before the theft.

HAWLEY: Well, I think it's been a wound, it was like a death in the family. And of course it's a wound that does not go away...Anthony's going to find them. That's my wish.

BOERI: Arguably, no one has been working this case with as much energy and enterprise as the Gardner's director of security, Anthony Amore.

AMORE: Every single document and piece of information that I can gather, I analyze to death. There are things that I wish I knew.

BOERI: In the end you don't have police powers.

AMORE: Right.

BOERI: Just as Rembrandt painted himself into the boat as one of the disciples in the stolen Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Anthony has ingrained himself into the larger investigation, but without the files the Bureau has.

AMORE: A wise investigator told me recently that the answer is in the files. And I only have so many files.

BOERI: In searching for her missing paintings, Amore is as obsessed as Mrs. Gardner was in collecting them.

BOERI to AMORE: What would Mrs. Gardner would be doing with regard to this case if she were around?

AMORE: I think Mrs. Gardner probably would have had them back by now.

BOERI: I think she might hadve been be screaming bloody murder throughout the city.

AMORE: I think she would have gotten it done by now.

For WBUR I'm David Boeri.

This program aired on March 13, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.


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