The 'Master Thieves' Behind Boston's Greatest Cold Case

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On the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art.

They took a Vermeer and three works by Rembrandt, including "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," the artist's only known seascape. The masterpieces are said to be worth $500 million. The Gardner heist remains the biggest art theft in history.

25 years later, there have been many fizzled theories and false leads. But, few people have followed the story as closely as Stephen Kurkjian. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from The Boston Globe has been on this story for nearly 20 years, and he's pieced together a deeper understanding of not just who might have stolen the paintings, but why.

Kurkjian writes about it in his new book, "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist."

Kurkjian's idea is to have Mayor Marty Walsh, Tom Brady and David Ortiz stand in front of the empty frames and say, "These belong to our city, we need to get them back." Do you think that would raise the public's attention? Let us know in comments.


Stephen Kurkjian, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist." He tweets @kurkjian.


On one of the central characters in the story, Louis Royce:
Stephen Kurkjian:
"He truly was Boston's best thief, for two reasons. One was...he didn't drink, he didn't take drugs, he was always sober. And, he was very patient. He would map out a score for hours or days on end to try to figure out how best to pull off a theft."

On how Louis found the Gardner Museum:
"When he ran away from home, he didn't have a place to sleep at night. a pre-teen, he'd been brought to the Gardner by his public school as a class trip, and he loved the place. He loved art. But he also loved how warm it was. So, when he ran away, he would sneak into the Gardner Museum before it closed and find places to sleep...Now, this is an outrageous story to believe. But, when Louis got out of jail in 2007, and I had already started to talk with him, I took him over to the museum. And, as we were walking through, I said to him, 'Louis, show me where you slept.' He told me he slept up on the fourth floor...There were two big clocks there, and he said, 'Those clocks would drive me crazy. You know, tick, tick, tick in the middle of the night.' And then he would sneak out in the morning, he'd go into a bathroom and they'd open the doors for the days and then he'd sneak out."

On whether the thieves were art lovers:
Pierce Brosnan is not the answer to this theft. These are the thugs who rob banks, rob armored cars, rob jewelry stores, they're always looking out for scores. And, the FBI went to the museum and told the museum in, let's say, September 1981, that they had a problem. And the notes from that meeting that the FBI had with the museum were made available to me, and that shows Louis Royce, Ralph Rossetti, were aiming towards breaking into the museum, they were interested in several paintings inside the blue room or the yellow room on the first floor of the museum."

On why the FBI didn't reach out to other law enforcement agencies to help reclaim the paintings:
"I think it's a bureaucratic and a cultural sovereignty that the FBI long has held. And, for the most part, it works. But, at some point, people started dying. People with direct had been so long, and I think that's why there should be another approach, now, which is an idea that I've written about in the Globe op-ed pages."

On what the story says about Boston:
"My feeling, as far as what this is unique about Boston, is the tribalism and that is intense. And I think that that has factored into a code of silence. You know, you don't help out, those aren't us, you know, we're, whatever your high school is. We're old school. And that stopped an easy flow of — a sense of, if I haven't lost something, I'm not going to get involved in the recovery. I'm not going to try to clean it up. Unless it hurts me and my family, I'm not going to raise my hand, because it's going to get me in trouble."


The ARTery: Gardner Museum Asks Us To Focus On The Art, Not The Empty Frames

  • "With more than 2,500 objects, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses one of the most impressive personal art collections in the world — but it’s best known for artworks that aren’t there anymore."

The Boston Globe: Stephen Kurkjian’s ‘Master Thieves’

  • "A veteran Boston Globe journalist (he retired in 2007 after four decades and three Pulitzer Prizes), Kurkjian’s background as an investigative reporter is on display everywhere in this story, which he started covering in 1997 after the FBI had failed to crack it."

The New York Times: Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist: 25 Years of Theories

  • "The hallway in the Brooklyn warehouse was dark, the space cramped. But soon there was a flashlight beam, and I was staring at one of the most sought-after stolen masterpieces in the world: Rembrandt’s 'Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.'"

This segment aired on March 12, 2015.


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