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The Boston Globe

Metro

3/13/05

Secrets behind the Gardner heist, the largest art theft in history

As they struggled to remove a heavy-framed Rembrandt from the silk-draped wall of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the two thieves abruptly stopped as a high-pitched alarm beeped from the baseboard.

They must have been startled.

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But not for long. Intended to alert guards when museum visitors ventured too close to the art, the alarm was quickly hunted down by the men. They smashed it silent and went back to work on what remains, 15 years after that misty March night in 1990, the biggest art heist in history.

The warning beeper proved to be the only part of the museum’s security system that deterred the men at all. They would spend 81 minutes moving through the darkened galleries of the Italianate mansion Mrs. Jack Gardner built at the turn of the century to house her private art collection and share it with the public; they could have stayed all night.

It is also one of the many secrets about the case that investigators have kept to themselves these many years, as they waited in vain for a reliable tip on the whereabouts of the 13 paintings and other artworks stolen that night.

A Globe reexamination of the case, including the first interview with the guard who let the thieves in, uncovers several of those secrets and allows the clearest account yet of what happened on the night of the theft an account that underscores how defenseless the Gardner was, with its easily foiled security system and two inexperienced guards on duty, one of whom admits he was sometimes stoned while on the job.

More details also have emerged about the many leads investigators have pursued, including a sighting of the thieves just before they entered the museum, and a 1994 offer to return the paintings that was never publicized but is considered the most promising tip received so far. The Gardner plans a public appeal today to the anonymous writer who made the offer, and then fell silent for 11 years.

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The Globe also came across a possible clue that not even the FBI was aware of - one of the paintings stolen, a small Rembrandt etching, had been taken once before.

Time is often the enemy of crime investigators; the trail quickly gets cold. But time has changed the Gardner case in one way that could increase the chances of the paintings’ being recovered: The statute of limitations has passed for prosecution of the theft itself. And the US attorney in Boston now says he will not prosecute anyone who has the paintings and offers to return them.

But while investigators have experienced some brief flurries of hope, mostly they have had to deal with frustration, fool’s errands, and silence. The paintings, whose total value today is more than $300 million, have never surfaced, not even as a strong rumor, in the international art underworld. The Gardner has offered a $5 million reward for the paintings’ return.

Museum officials say they take heart in the fact that some masterworks stolen from other museums have surfaced after many years. But like the investigators, the museum’s leaders are baffled by how little progress has been made since thieves entered the museum in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the city wound down.

They are baffled especially because the thieves, though bold and clever, were hardly meticulous professionals. They took no great pains to avoid being seen, nor were they careful to avoid damaging the masterpieces they were stealing.

They posed as Boston police officers, and even though they flashed badges and wore insignias, their long coats were not part of any official uniform. The Globe located several passersby who remember seeing them sitting quietly in a red hatchback near the museum’s side entrance, perhaps waiting for a St. Patrick’s Day party in a nearby apartment building to break up before making their move. And their disguises left their faces uncovered, giving the guards a good look at them.

Once inside, the thieves ripped a Vermeer, three Rembrandts - including his only seascape - five Degas drawings, and a Manet from their wall placements, smashing them out of their frames and leaving shards of glass and remnants of canvas behind. The thieves took some of the museum’s greatest treasures but left behind some even more valuable objects.

When they were done for the night, they made two trips to their car with the loot. Then they vanished.

Where the paintings were, empty frames now fill the museum’s walls.

But, while there remains great sadness at the loss, the museum has recovered, said Gardner director Anne Hawley. The museum, she said, has become again something like “the vibrant center for the arts it was in Gardner’s day.”

As to the missing masterworks, Hawley’s hope is that whoever has them knows that their preservation depends on keeping them in a safe and temperature-controlled setting. And she is calling on the anonymous tipster who reached out to the museum in 1994 to open up communications again.

“I call out to an important person to us. Years ago, I received a lead from a sincere individual giving me information that was comforting and genuine. This person clearly was concerned about the stolen art and knew its condition,” she said in a statement. “I very much hope this person will contact me again. . . . I assure complete confidentiality.”

The ruse

For the 23-year-old Berklee College of Music student, working as a Gardner guard was the most tedious job imaginable, but it was also almost perfect.

He could jam all day with his rock band, play a club gig at night, then roll into the museum at midnight for his overnight shift. Sometimes, he admits, he was a little stoned on marijuana during his first few hours on the job. The concert buzz took a while to wear off.

“I’d be just getting off of the stage somewhere and just wanted to slow down before I went over to the most boring job in the world,” said the guard, who consented to his first media interview about the robbery on the condition that his name not be used.

He found another way to relieve the boredom a few months before the theft, inviting four friends into the museum for some Christmas season cheer. They sat around getting drunk on wine and appreciating the artwork, he recalled.

But he insists he was sober and alert when he spotted two uniformed men on his video monitor on the night of the theft. Speaking through the intercom at the museum’s side entrance, the men told him there had been a “disturbance on the grounds” of the museum, and that they had to investigate. He remembers thinking the officers might have been pursuing an intruder who had scaled the museum’s 7 1/2-foot iron fence. He buzzed them in.

Now there were two strangers in the museum, and two guards, neither of whom had much experience on the job.

When the rock musician arrived a few minutes before midnight for what was to be one of his last shifts - he had given his notice a few days earlier - he was told that his usual partner, an older man who had worked at the Gardner for years, had called in sick. The replacement, a 25-year-old budding horn player, had been employed at the museum for only a few months, as a daytime guard. The two had never worked together.

Most nights, two guards could easily handle the job. The men would take turns making rounds throughout the four-story building and manning the main security desk, with its four video monitors, just inside the Gardner’s side entrance on Palace Road. The museum’s galleries and corridors were also equipped with motion detectors that sent a silent alert to a computer system located in a small room behind the main security desk.

The guards rarely had anything disturbing to report, though the Globe learned of an incident two weeks before the robbery. On his video screen, a guard saw a young man being assaulted by a couple of men, then heard someone, perhaps the youth, banging on the museum side door asking for refuge inside. The guard told the young man he would call the police instead.

Before police arrived, however, all of the men, including the one being assaulted, jumped into a car and roared off.

Was it the thieves’ first after-hours attempt to enter the museum? Or a test run to see how the guards would respond? Investigators still wonder.

And the guards were nervous as well, when, just a half hour before the thieves entered the building, a fire alarm went off on the museum’s third floor, drawing one of them away to investigate. He found a room ablaze with strobes, but no fire.

But such excitement was extremely rare on the night shift. In fact, to stay awake, some of the guards had made a game of trying to complete their rounds without setting off a single motion detector. It was something to do.

Now there was something else. According to investigative records, the thieves were buzzed into the museum through two sets of locked security doors at 1:24 a.m.

The guard at the desk said he decided to let them in because he felt compelled to obey a police officer’s demand. His instructions from the museum were never to let any unknown person into the museum, but he said he didn’t know that rule applied to police. Another guard said he, too, had never been told what to do if police showed up unannounced at the door.

Not so, said Lyle W. Grindle, the retired director of security for the Gardner and a certified professional in the field. He told the Globe that all guards who worked the night shift were warned in writing not to admit police officers who had not been directly summoned by the museum. Lawrence P. O’Brien, the Gardner’s former deputy director of security, agreed that the policy was written into the museum’s security manual, kept at the guard desk.

Once in, the two men asked the guard at the control desk how many other night watchmen were in the building. Only one other, the guard replied, and he was doing rounds on the third floor. “Get him down here,” said the man, who, the guard recalls, did all the talking.

Meanwhile, the intruders managed to trick the guard behind the control desk into making his second critical error of the night: He stepped out from behind the chest-level desk, where he had access to the only alarm button in the museum, which would immediately alert police.

It was a weakness in the system the museum was well aware of. The year before, a museum security specialist named Steven R. Keller urged the Gardner to move the security operation, including the alarm button, into a control room accessible only to those with pass keys. The recommendation was included in a renovation plan that Hawley, who took over as museum director in September 1989, had begun to implement in the months before the robbery.

“You look familiar,” one of the intruders said, as the guard recalled it. “I think we have a default warrant out on you. Come out here and show us some identification.”

Though the guard knew there were no warrants outstanding against him, he stepped out and handed the officers his driver’s license and Berklee student ID.

But the two men in police uniforms ordered the guard to stand spread-eagled facing the wall. The next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed. “Then it hit me: They hadn’t frisked me. I’d never been arrested, but I watched enough cop shows to know they always frisk people before they arrest them,” he said. “If it wasn’t an arrest, then it had to be a robbery.”

The second guard arrived at the security desk as the men were interrogating his colleague, and was shocked when they put him in handcuffs as well.

“Why are you arresting me?” he said to the thieves.

“You’re not being arrested,” the man said. “This is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems, and you won’t get hurt.”

“Don’t worry,” the younger guard responded, “they don’t pay me enough to get hurt.”

“Well, if you don’t tell the police anything about us for a year, we’ll send you a reward,” the thief replied, as the guard recalls it.

Within minutes, the two guards had their hands, feet, and heads wrapped in duct tape, and were being led to the museum’s basement, where they were taped to posts about 100 feet apart. It was 1:48, and for the next 57 minutes, the thieves had unimpeded access to the museum’s galleries.

Their steps could be traced by the museum’s motion detector system, whose data are included in investigative records viewed by the Globe. The detector soundings show that the thieves went immediately to the second floor, then split up, with one heading into the Dutch Room at the south end of the building and the other to the Short Gallery, a small room above the museum’s main entrance.

In the Dutch Room, they took three of the four Rembrandt masterworks Gardner purchased in her lifetime. They were interested in stealing the fourth - a large self-portrait painted in 1629 - but it apparently proved too hard to remove.

But what they did take was priceless. The two principal works - “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” the only seascape that Rembrandt is known to have painted, and “The Concert,” by Vermeer, one of only about 35 known paintings by the Dutch master - would each command at least $50 million on the open market today.

The thieves did not treat the paintings with much regard. “The Concert” was knocked out of its setting, and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was cut from its frame. The Manet, a work called “Chez Tortoni,” was also knocked out of its frame, the wood casing left on one of the chairs in the security supervisor’s room.

In the Short Gallery, the thieves ripped five Edgar Degas drawings from two frames and tried to remove a Napoleonic banner hanging above the entry to the Tapestry Room. Evidently frustrated by the many tiny screws that held the banner inside its frame, they instead swiped the gilded eagle finial from atop the frame.

Investigators believe the finial represented a kind of trophy piece for the thieves.

At 2:28 a.m. - 64 minutes after entering the building - the men returned to the security counter and, after making the second of two checks on the guards in the basement, readied for their departure. They removed the videotape from the recorder that had captured their images at the museum’s side door as well as elsewhere in the building. They also ripped the computer printout from the motion detector equipment, not realizing that their tracks had been captured on the computer’s hard drive.

Thirteen minutes later, they began their escape, slipping out into the empty, wet streets in two separate trips.

In the basement, the two guards did not hear the thieves leave. They remained tied and handcuffed to their posts through the night until police were summoned at 8:15 that morning. The guard who had allowed the thieves into the building recalls relaxing somewhat after he realized the thieves were not going to burn down the building. To pass the time, he started singing a favorite Bob Dylan tune, “I Shall Be Released,” whose opening stanza includes the line: “So I remember every face / Of every man who put me here.”

And when Boston Police asked him, he did remember what the men looked like.

He told them one of the thieves appeared to be in his late 30s, about 5 feet 9 inches, slim, with gold wire glasses and a mustache, which was possibly fake. The other appeared to be in his early 30s, 6 feet tall, and heavier, with chubby cheeks. He also sported a mustache.

But the guard said he was never shown any photographs of likely suspects. As for the police sketch drawn from his account, “it was awful,” he recalled.

Time has now robbed him of much of his memory of what the thieves looked like. “One of them looked like Colonel Klink on ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ That’s all I can remember.”

The investigation

Since the morning the guards were discovered and debriefed, the FBI and private detectives hired by the museum have tracked hundreds of leads and dealt with dozens of intermediaries for individuals who contend they can lead investigators to the missing artwork. Invariably, the trails have come to dead ends, as information could not be corroborated or tipsters proved to be fakers, with an eye only for the reward money, said Geoffrey J. Kelly, the lead FBI agent on the case.

But in late April 1994, the museum received an overture that Gardner officials regard as the most promising lead ever in the case. An anonymous letter writer said he could facilitate the return of the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million and full immunity from prosecution for the thieves and those who held the paintings. Because the overture involved a request for immunity from prosecution, the museum turned the letter, postmarked in New York, over to the FBI.

The letter writer showed considerable knowledge of the paintings and of the international art world. He said the stolen paintings were being stored in archival conditions, and had not yet been sold. But, he warned, the museum should agree swiftly to the exchange because the paintings were being held in a country where a buyer who did not know they had been stolen could claim legal ownership.

The writer proposed a clandestine way for the museum to respond to the overture. If the Gardner was open to negotiating a ransom deal, it should send a signal to him by arranging to have the numeral ''1" inserted in the US-foreign dollar exchange listing for the Italian lira that would be published in The Boston Sunday Globe on May 1, 1994. And, in fact, that Sunday, the numeral ''1" was listed a few spaces in front of the actual US dollar exchange rate for the lira.

Matthew V. Storin, editor of The Globe in 1994, said he was told of the letter's contents and agreed to insert the numeral -- being careful not to make the currency listing itself inaccurate -- at the request of Richard S. Swensen, the special agent in charge of the FBI Boston office.

''I saw it as a community-service decision," Storin said, adding that he cleared the move with William O. Taylor, the Globe's publisher at the time, and made it clear to Swensen that he expected the paper to get the first word if the overture led to the paintings' return.

The following week, the museum received a second letter from the anonymous writer. He was encouraged to see that the museum was interested in negotiating an exchange. But he was alarmed by the aggressive reaction by federal, state, and local law enforcement after the museum received his letter. Were the museum and authorities interested in getting the paintings returned, or in arresting a low-level intermediary, he wondered.

''YOU CANNOT HAVE BOTH," he wrote in capital letters, adding, ''Right now I need time to both think and start the process to insure confidentiality of the exchange."

If he decided it was impossible to continue negotiating, he wrote, he would provide the museum with some clues to the paintings' whereabouts. But he never wrote the museum again.

In the 10 years since the letter was written, federal prosecutors have dropped their opposition to giving immunity to someone who might want to return the artwork. US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said he would be willing to forgo charges against anyone who facilitated the paintings' safe return. As for the actual thieves, the statute of limitations for prosecution ran out in the mid-1990s.

Investigators have also sought clues to the identity of the thieves in the particular objects they stole, and those they left behind. They wonder, for example, why the men took pen-and-ink sketches by Degas from the Short Gallery and left behind a far more valuable Michelangelo nearby. The motion detectors also show that the thieves never bothered to go to the museum's third floor, where perhaps the most valuable piece in the museum's collection, Titian's ''Europa,hangs.

And then there was the anomaly of the thieves' determined effort to steal a Napoleonic banner. Why would they waste so much time on such an obscure object?

One possible clue the FBI missed, however, was that one of the objects stolen in 1990 had been the target of a theft once before -- in the only other significant case of theft in the history of the Gardner.

In 1970, a stamp-size Rembrandt sketch, ''Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," was stolen when someone smashed a paper bag filled with light bulbs on the gallery floor, diverting the guard's attention long enough for the thief to make off with the art. While those responsible were never caught, the drawing was returned a few months later by an art dealer who said it was given to him by someone who found it on a New York subway train.

Kelly, the FBI agent heading the investigation, said it is worth checking whether there could be any connection between the two thefts.

Hoping for safe return
In addition to questioning the guards, the FBI and Boston Police crime scene analysts scoured the museum's galleries for clues in the days following the robbery. They picked up several latent fingerprints on the broken frames, but no matches could be found in the FBI database. The guards said the thieves wore gloves.

Dozens of past and current employees were questioned. One question was how could the thieves have known that the only alarm to the outside world was the one behind the guard's desk? How did they know that none of the paintings was protected by antitheft devices?

Investigators began with the assumption that the thieves must have had accomplices to drive the getaway vehicle. But that theory was cast into doubt several weeks later, when four youths told investigators that, as they left a party at the apartment building behind the museum between midnight and 1 a.m., they noticed two men sitting in a small hatchback parked on the museum side of Palace road. The men were dressed in what looked like Boston Police uniforms. 

''We were all a little startled to see two police officers just parked there, but since we'd been drinking and we were all underage, we decided to leave rather quickly," one of the four said in an interview. But realizing that they may have information important to the case, the four soon gave statements to police.

Authorities have followed several clues overseas. FBI agent Dan Falzon, then the lead investigator on the case, and Barbara Mangum, the Gardner's chief conservator at the time, flew to Japan in the early 1990s after receiving word that the Rembrandt seascape had appeared in the private gallery of wealthy artist with organized crime ties. The painting, however, turned out to be a mediocre reproduction of Rembrandt's masterpiece.

More recently, FBI agent Kelly flew with a colleague to Paris to discuss with French prosecutors a tip that discredited French business magnate Jean-Marie Messier had bought several of the stolen Rembrandts. Kelly downplayed the possibility that it would lead to a crack in the case. ''The only difference between this one and the dozens of others we get in regularly is that this one made the papers," Kelly said.

Lynne Richardson, who manages the FBI's National Stolen Art File, said she views the Gardner theft as unique in modern American history, because it involved planning, disguises, and deception.

''This is the way they rob museums in Europe, not the United States," she said, ''so (the paintings) could be right there or way across the ocean."

Despite the 15 years of frustration, both the FBI's Kelly and the Gardner's Hawley said they remain optimistic that the paintings will be returned. Hawley said she has been encouraged by the fact that in 2002 the Tate Gallery in London gained the safe return of two paintings by the 19th-century English artist J. M. W. Turner that had been stolen while on loan to a German gallery eight years before.

Despite their optimism, the odds have been against return of the paintings. The FBI says only 5 percent of stolen artwork is ever returned to its rightful owners. But Julian Radcliffe, the director of the Art Loss Register, which helps in the recovery of stolen artwork, said that the chances for return of masterpieces are better, perhaps as high as 20 percent, because there are so few buyers for paintings the world knows were stolen.

''At some point, hopefully, it becomes a better option to turn it in for the reward or part of some legal benefit than it is to try to sell or trade it," Radcliffe said.

Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com.

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