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Mobster’s widow confirms husband gave art to ‘friend’

Her tip was key to Conn. search

The widow of a Mafia associate, whose Maine home the FBI searched three years ago as part of the investigation into the Gardner Museum art heist, told authorities that she saw her husband give a painting to the Connecticut man who has become the latest person of interest in the notorious theft, the Globe has confirmed through several sources, including the woman.

The information was the basis for the recent thorough, repeated searches of the man’s home in Manchester, Conn., according to his lawyer.

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Elene Guarente confirmed in an interview Friday that she told Boston-based federal investigators during a trip to her home in 2009 that she saw her husband, the late Robert Guarente, pass a portrait to a man she did not know at the time, who she later learned to be Robert Gentile of Manchester.

She said her husband had only told her of Gentile that “we’ve been friends for 30 or 40 years.’’

Guarente, 61, said in a reluctant interview Friday that she provided her best recollection of the piece to the federal agents and later to a federal grand jury investigating the theft. She told the Globe that her recollection of the painting did not match any of the paintings and sketches authorities showed her.

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“That was the only picture that Bob gave [Gentile] that I know of,’’ she said. She said she saw the picture only once, in the early 1990s, at her Madison, Maine, home when her husband took it out of a tube he was carrying and showed it to her. She said he never explained how he had come into possession of the painting or what he intended to do with it.

Guarente would not describe the piece of art that she viewed to the Globe.

She said that several years later Gentile, accompanied by a second man whom she declined to identify, visited Robert Guarente at the Maine house for a hunting trip. At some point, following the trip, Guarente gave the painting, still in its carrying tube, to Gentile, she said.

“I didn’t think anymore about it until they came and began asking me questions about what Bob may have known about stolen paintings,’’ she said.

Earlier Friday, Guarente had denied any knowledge of the paintings to the Globe until she was told that Gentile’s lawyer and associate had provided different accounts of her testimony to authorities.

Their accounts now provide the backdrop for the latest activity in an investigation that has captivated the art community and the general public for years, and which seems to have been amplified in recent weeks.

The theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway section of Boston remains one of the most scandalous art thefts in history and perhaps the most sensational in Boston.

Two men dressed as police officers conned their way past security guards in the early-morning hours of March 18, 1990, tied the guards up, and went on to steal priceless masterpieces, including three by Rembrandt and five by Degas.

The case has become a priority for the US attorney’s office and the FBI in Boston since the arrest last year of fugitive James “Whitey’’ Bulger.

The pieces of art would be virtually impossible to move even on the black market because of the high-profile investigation, authorities have said.

Gentile, a 75-year-old Mafioso with ties to Boston crews, is in prison awaiting gun and drug charges, but his lawyer has maintained that the charges are a ruse, that authorities are trying to pressure him into providing information about the artwork.

Armed with a warrant allowing them to look for guns, federal authorities on Thursday searched Gentile’s Manchester home, the second time since his arrest in February.

The authorities used ground-penetrating radar and specialized dogs in the search. But Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, accused authorities of covertly expanding their search to look for the paintings.

Investigators have not commented on the search but were seen leaving the home with boxes and bags.

Authorities found guns in both searches, his lawyer said. But McGuigan argued that his client, who is ailing, has told authorities and a grand jury everything he knows and that his client would take advantage of the $5 million reward if he had any more information.

“He has told them what he knows - he knows nothing more - and they’re insisting that he does,’’ McGuigan said.

McGuigan said his client met with authorities Friday and that he knows the significance of the case.

“My client has said from the beginning that he wishes he could help them find the paintings, not only for the $5 million, but also because my client understands the artwork is not only important to the Gardner Museum, the art world, but he also understands it’s important to society at large. He just doesn’t have any more information.’’

Andrew Parente, 76 and Gentile’s codefendant, is out on bail and said in an interview Friday that his childhood friend has told them that investigators have asked about the paintings based on Elene Guarente’s account, but that he knows nothing more.

“Believe me, we don’t know nothing about no paintings,’’ he said. “If I knew where they were, I would have gave them up in a minute.’’

He said he met Robert Guarente only once years ago through Gentile when they visited his strip club in Connecticut after watching a baseball game.

Guarente was one of 11 men indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of stealing $227,000 in eight holdups of banks in Greater Boston from November 1967 to July 1968. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He returned to Maine and was convicted again of being a past felon in possession of a handgun. At the time, he penned a letter to a judge asking for a lenient sentence; Guarente reminded the judge that the judge had once called him a “changed man’’ since returning to Maine in 1986.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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