The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?

Twenty-six years after the artwork was stolen, the museum’s security chief thinks he knows who did it. What has him stumped is where the paintings are now.
the concert vermeer gardner museum

‘The Concert’ by Vermeer, one of the artworks stolen from the Gardner Museum. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when Anthony Amore gets frustrated by his 11-year hunt for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s stolen paintings, he and the FBI agents on the case will talk each other through the ways that other museums’ stolen masterpieces have come home.

If the 13 Gardner artworks swiped in 1990 are ever returned, will it be thanks to an old crook, ready to deal at last? A family member, sorting through inherited bric-a-brac in some long-locked New England attic? Or a tip from the public, someone who sees or hears a final clue?

“We often say, ‘When will one of those scenarios come our way?’” says Amore, the Gardner’s director of security since 2005. But after more than a decade of searching, after compiling 30,000 pieces of information about the crime, he no longer feels the homecoming is so far away.

“One small piece of information could end this tomorrow,” Amore says.

The biggest art theft in world history struck Boston 26 years ago this week, on March 18, 1990, when two thieves dressed as police bluffed their way into the Gardner and made off with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet.

Though a generation has passed, the investigation is no cold case. Amore and the FBI marked the heist’s 23rd and 25th anniversaries by sharing their leading theory of the case—a tale of petty thieves in Dorchester and Mafia men in Connecticut and Philadelphia. This year, as the 26th anniversary of the theft approached, Amore sat down with Boston for a more forward-looking conversation: on how the case might end.

None of his comments, Amore stressed, were intended as hints about specific suspects. “I don’t want you to think I’m making a commentary on the Gardner criminals in detail,” he said. “For instance, his name’s in the paper all the time: Robert Gentile.” A federal prosecutor has alleged that Gentile, a 79-year-old alleged Connecticut mobster, may have some of the paintings in his possession. “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to tie Robert Gentile to these profiles.”

In his publicity photos, Amore, 49, looks like the federal counter-terror agent he once was, sharp and polished in a suit and tie. The day of our interview, he chose a more bookish look, including a fleece pullover and glasses. He’s tackled parts of his work more like an art historian than a federal investigator: he’s collected the details of 1,300 art heists from around the world. Though the Gardner hired Amore 15 years after the thefts, they have come to define his work; he carries a copy of one of the 13 lost pieces, Rembrandt’s etching “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in his wallet as a reminder of the crime. Amore spoke about how past art heists may hold clues about both the thieves who robbed the Gardner and the prospects for cracking the case, as well as ways the public might help.

 

An hour after the end of St. Patrick’s Day 1990, a merrymaking band of students walked past the Gardner Museum and noticed something odd: two men in police uniforms, sitting in an unmarked hatchback. One student noticed the car didn’t have a police license plate, but he and his friends, not wanting to get busted for underage drinking, moved on.

At 1:24 a.m., the car pulled up to the museum’s employee entrance. One of the uniformed men pressed the buzzer, told guard Richard Abath they were investigating a disturbance, and convinced Abath to let them in.

Hours later, Abath and a second guard were found in the basement, handcuffed and tied up with duct tape. Missing were 13 works of art, five of them by Edgar Degas and three by Rembrandt van Rijn, including Rembrandt’s only known seascape, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

“People say this was so elaborate,” Amore says. “It’s not elaborate!” If Abath had followed protocol and called the Boston police, the fake cops would never have gotten into the Gardner. “It was kind of a flimsy plan that worked.”

The thieves’ haul included Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “The Concert”—“the most valuable stolen thing in the world,” Amore claims, with a value as high as $200 million. But their other choices have helped convince Amore that, like nearly all art thieves in history, they were common criminals, not experts in art crime. The thieves left behind the Gardner’s most valuable painting, Titian’s “Europa,” but took a Napoleonic finial, a gilded bronze eagle, off a French flagstaff.

“The idea of a professional art thief, a cat burglar who goes and steals masterpieces, is fiction,” says Amore. “It has nothing to do with people who want art for their collection. It’s people stealing these things for money.”

In 2011, Amore spun off his historic art-crime research into his book Stealing Rembrandts, co-authored with journalist Tom Mashberg. Hardly any thieves who steal a masterpiece ever do it again, Amore says, because they quickly discover they’re stuck with it. “If you steal hugely recognizable art, you can’t fence it,” Amore says.

In fact, Amore only knows of two thieves in history who stole art more than once. One was Adam Worth, a 19th-century crook who inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy, Professor Moriarty. The other is Massachusetts’ master art burglar, Myles Connor, who stole a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1975, then used it to negotiate a reduced sentence for stealing N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth paintings from the Woolworth estate in Maine the year before.

“He’s the greatest art thief who’s ever lived,” says Amore. However, he adds, “Myles Connor did not rob the Gardner Museum. If Myles wasn’t in prison at the time, it would have to have been him. But we know it was not him.” Connor has sometimes bragged that he inspired the Gardner heist, claiming that associates of his pulled off his tentative plans to rob the place. Yet Connor’s late-1990s offers to try to find the missing paintings all came to naught. Amore, who’s met Connor, shrugs off his claims. “I do feel confident that if he had access to them today, we’d have them back.”

The thieves’ ruse of dressing as policemen was common in Massachusetts robberies around 1990. So Amore says he wants to hear tips from “people who might know a criminal who could’ve been involved, who used these sorts of ruses”—for instance, a crook who owned a police uniform. “We’re looking for who the mastermind of the theft might’ve been,” he says.

But what Amore wants even more is a tip that leads to the paintings, not the thieves. On the 23rd anniversary of the theft in 2013, FBI agents, with Amore at their side, announced that they believed “with a high degree of confidence” that they had identified the thieves, and that the paintings had been passed to organized crime figures in Connecticut and Philadelphia. Last year, before the 25th anniversary, Amore and the lead FBI agent on the investigation shared more about their theory of the case. It revolves around the late Carmello Merlino, a mobbed-up Dorchester car-repair shop owner, and his associates, including George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio. Both Reissfelder and DiMuzio died in 1991, and both resembled police sketches of the thieves. Reissfelder drove a red Dodge Daytona, similar to the car the students saw outside the Gardner.

“We’ve said in the past we know who the thieves are,” Amore says, but “knowing that hasn’t led us directly to the paintings.”

For years, the Gardner has offered a $5 million reward for information that leads to the safe return of the 13 artworks in good condition. Last year, it announced a separate $100,000 reward for the Napoleonic bronze eagle, on the possibility that it may have been separated from the paintings since the theft. “It may have been stolen as a trophy piece,” Amore says. “Someone could have that in their home right now, or in their antique store.” According to a January story in the Hartford Courant, the eagle may have been seen years ago at Robert Gentile’s used car lot in Connecticut. (Amore won’t comment on that report. “I don’t want to give it too much or too little credibility,” he says.)

Tips about the Gardner art’s whereabouts have been few and sketchy. “That kind of tells us they haven’t moved around a lot,” Amore says. Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was offered for sale in Philadelphia around 2003, according to an FBI witness. A federal prosecutor in Hartford has claimed in court that Gentile tried to sell some of the Gardner paintings to an undercover FBI agent last year; Gentile’s lawyer has said his client was bluffing and doesn’t have the paintings.

“People assume that because a quarter-century has passed, those things are long gone,” Amore says. Not necessarily. “Whoever the paintings went to could still be in possession of all or some of them.”

 

In May 1980, Boston violin virtuoso Roman Totenberg lost his Stradivarius to a thief. After performing in a concert at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Totenberg, the school’s director, left his prized 1734 violin in his office to attend a reception. It was gone when he returned. Totenberg, the father of NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, died in 2012 at age 101, without seeing the violin again.

After 35 years, the Stradivarius came back. Violinist Philip S. Johnson, a longtime suspect in the theft, left it to his ex-wife when he died in 2011, and four years later, she brought it to an appraiser, who recognized it as Totenberg’s. Last August, the FBI returned the violin to Nina Totenberg and her sisters during a ceremony at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan.

If a masterpiece violin can return home, so can masterpiece paintings. Like Totenberg’s violin, Amore says, stolen art is often recovered a generation after a theft. By then, “the scariest person involved in the crime has died or is not so scary anymore,” he says. “Now [someone] can come forward.”

Often, a tip from the public leads to the return of stolen art: “Somebody who comes forward and says they’ve seen something, they’re aware of something.” Such tips most often come from a friend or family member of the person who has the art. “Unfortunately, it’s never a guy who walks down the street and sees a painting through a window,” Amore says. “These paintings are not hanging on people’s walls. They’re hidden.”

Sometimes, a criminal informant provides the tip, or the person who has the art cuts a deal. “Sometimes, stolen art is used to negotiate your way out of trouble,” says Amore. “Some people will even steal them ahead of time, to hold as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Like Totenberg’s Stradivarius, the Gardner’s artworks may have ended up with someone who didn’t steal or hide them. “I would be concerned some innocent person might have them right now,” Amore says, “and is afraid to come forward because they fear some sort of danger from the outside world.”

It’s a crime to knowingly possess stolen property, but the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston has offered the possibility of immunity for anyone who helps return the Gardner’s art. Amore says the museum could protect a tipster’s identity and deliver the $5 million reward anonymously, through an attorney. Since he’s not a law-enforcement agent, he adds, he can ensure the art’s return is completed without fear of arrest.

“Speaking for the museum, we just want our paintings back,” Amore says. “I would work as hard as can you can imagine to make sure that the people who come forward, that their names are never exposed. We have methods to do that, to pay the reward, so the person who gets it isn’t named publicly.”

That raises the possibility that Boston’s greatest mystery could end mysteriously, that Bostonians could someday see the lost paintings on the Gardner’s gallery walls again, but without the whodunit thrill of learning who stole and hid the paintings and how they came back. “When a piece is recovered, oftentimes the info is murky and scarce,” says Amore, “because there are parts of the story that just can’t be told.” That’s okay with him. “I am far more interested in the recovery than the story,” he says.

It’s also possible the Gardner mystery will never be solved. Perhaps the artworks have been destroyed, or are too damaged for anyone to collect the $5 million reward, or they’re lost—hidden by a crook who died without revealing their location. But Amore doesn’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. About 80 percent of stolen masterworks, he says, are eventually returned.

“So many people are interested in the theft,” Amore says. “If people want to help, they should acquaint themselves with the images. That’s how this will be solved.” The Gardner’s website hosts a virtual tour of the stolen art, and images of each piece are posted on the FBI’s webpage about the case.

Any little bit of information can help. “I’m not looking for someone necessarily to call me and say, ‘Go to Locker 3 in this storage facility,’” he says. “It’s like you put this puzzle together, you start with the borders, and people are giving you pieces.

“If you do puzzles, most of the time, there’s this one piece that’s just like—hoo, okay!—now you hit this arc, now it’s falling together. So I’m not necessarily looking for the big aha! moment. I’m looking for the small aha! moments that I can piece together.”


Erick Trickey Erick Trickey, Boston Magazine bmagdigital+etrickey@gmail.com


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