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How the Gardner Museum’s security head befriended ‘the greatest art thief that ever lived’

Can Anthony Amore and Myles Connor’s unlikely bond help crack the greatest unsolved art heist in history?

The Gardner Museum's head of security, Anthony Amore (left) and art thief Myles Connor shared lunch recently at La Scala restaurant in Randolph.
The Gardner Museum's head of security, Anthony Amore (left) and art thief Myles Connor shared lunch recently at La Scala restaurant in Randolph.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Anthony Amore is not having it.

“Who in the world forgets they were involved in a Rembrandt theft?” he asks. “Who forgets that?”

This isn’t an interrogation, although Amore is directing his question to an art thief. This is lunch between good friends.

The head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Myles Connor, a man Amore calls “the greatest art thief that ever lived,” have only just been seated, and already the conversation has turned to art crime. How could it not? Connor, 77, began stealing from museums before Amore was born.

By 1975, when Amore was an 8-year-old Yankees fan growing up in Providence, Connor was already such an accomplished thief that he committed one heist — the broad daylight theft of an oval Rembrandt oil painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — to use as a bargaining chip for a reduced sentence in connection with another, earlier theft from the Woolworth Estate in Monmouth, Maine (which included five Wyeth paintings: two by N.C., three by Andrew).

Connor’s rap sheet dates back to 1966. He had evaded capture for robbing the Forbes House Museum, in his hometown of Milton, until a shootout with police on a Marlborough Street rooftop left him nearly dead from four gunshot wounds. Connor shot and almost killed a State Police officer in the run-up to that melee, earning an attempted murder charge on top of the one for art theft. He served six years — his first prison term — at MCI-Walpole.

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His memory isn’t great these days, but Connor remembers that particular episode with sparkling clarity: the news trucks broadcasting live from the street below, the Boston Fire Department captain whose intervention on the rooftop he says saved his life.

But this Rembrandt business that Amore is talking about? Connor honestly can’t recall. That’s because the Rembrandt in question is yet another, this one taken from a private home in Cohasset during the summer of 1975. It so happens that Connor, following the MFA heist earlier that spring, was living on the lam that summer. In Cohasset.

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“You were involved in that,” Amore says.

“I was?” Connor asks, letting loose a laugh so mighty it shakes his entire body, as well as the table. Flatware jumps. Ice cubes clink in water goblets.

Connor has no memory of it, but he is tickled to think so.

With friends like these

In the annals of confounding bromances — think of the Old West lawman Wyatt Earp’s deep friendship with the gun-slinging outlaw Doc Holliday — the genuine affection between Anthony Amore and Myles Connor has to be right up there.

The men’s chosen vocations would seem to rule out an easy bonhomie. Amore leads the investigation into the world’s greatest unsolved art heist, a mystery entering its 30th year with the heist’s March 18 anniversary.

The broad strokes of that dead-of-night crime are by now well known: Two men wearing glue-on mustaches and police uniforms bluffed their way into the old Palace Road entrance of the Gardner Museum, handcuffed the two on-duty security guards to pipes in the basement, and vanished with 13 works of art into the predawn dark after St. Patrick’s Day.

Their haul included three works by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s “The Concert.” Today, the stolen works’ value is estimated to exceed, collectively, $1 billion. In the three decades since the heist, there has not been a single arrest, not one piece of the lost art recovered.

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If the Gardner case is both a bane and what drives Amore, his friend Connor says the whole thing was his idea. “I had intended to be involved in the theft, but I got nailed by the feds.”

“I had intended to be involved in the theft," says art thief Myles Connor, "but I got nailed by the feds.”
“I had intended to be involved in the theft," says art thief Myles Connor, "but I got nailed by the feds.”John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When the thieves hit the Gardner Museum, Connor was locked up in a federal prison in Chicago. Some time later, he was transferred to a facility in Lompoc, Calif. A visitor there told Connor that he and an accomplice had robbed the Gardner to get him out of prison. That man was the late David Houghton. He told Connor that his accomplice in the Gardner heist was Bobby Donati (like Houghton, Donati died the year after the heist in 1991). It was Donati, Connor says, who helped him rob the Woolworth Estate, in 1973.

Connor also says that he and Donati cased the Gardner Museum together, in 1975. The pair pointed out would-be souvenirs. For Donati, the bronze eagle finial perched atop a Napoleonic regimental banner. For Connor, a Shang Dynasty ritual bronze vessel, or Gu, from the 12th century, B.C. Both items were among the pieces stolen. Connor believes the Gu was taken for him, and he’s pretty certain that Donati ended up with that finial.

“The only real reason that I know that they did it,” Connor says, “was because David Houghton came all the way from Logan to Lompoc, California, and told me.”

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Amore doesn’t confirm or deny that Donati and Houghton were involved in the Gardner heist. But he does buy Connor’s account. “I believe Myles that David Houghton visited him in Lompoc federal prison and told him that he and Bobby Donati had committed the heist to get him out of jail. I 100 percent believe Myles that that happened.”

Amore adds, “I do believe that Myles is the inspiration for the Gardner theft.”

Knuckleheads

Amore, 53, is tall, soft-spoken, and dresses in tidy civilian camouflage: navy blazer, pressed khakis, tie. His taciturn nature lends itself well to the delicate balance he must strike between granting interviews to press from all over the world and the imperative never to reveal more than he can or wants to about the ongoing investigation. Amore can be infuriatingly adept at scuttling a reporter’s efforts to probe.

Before taking over the theft investigation, in 2005, Amore had been in only one other art museum in his life. He says of his previous job, helping rebuild security at Logan Airport after 9/11, “When your objective was preventing terrorism, your goal was never to meet the people on the other side. In this [work at the Gardner], you have to meet the people, that is the only way to accomplish it.” And by people, Amore means, more often than not, the so-called bad guys.

Growing up in a modest Cape house sandwiched between two housing projects, Amore says, he knew scofflaws to spare. Some were members of his own family. “I grew up around those sorts of people. I’m comfortable speaking to them.”

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“My inspiration for doing this work was talking to people who actually did the crimes,” Amore continues. “The first most influential book I read was ‘Mindhunter,’ by John Douglas. To stop serial killers, talk to serial killers. That’s how I became friends with art thieves like Al Monday and Myles Connor, and all these other knuckleheads.”

But the knucklehead that Amore is genuinely fond of is Connor. “I liked him from the minute I met him, in 2015,” Amore says. “When I sat down and started asking him about the Gardner that first day, he told me everything, and I told him some stuff he didn’t know that frankly comported with some of his beliefs. And you could see his response to it was visceral, that he wasn’t playing games with it. And I’ll go to my grave believing that when he said, ‘I wish you’d get those paintings back for [Gardner Museum director emeritus] Anne Hawley, she deserves to have them back,’ he meant it.”

In many ways, Connor could not be less like his law-abiding pal. He unfurls his dress shirt to the third button and is wholly at ease standing out in a crowd. The son of a Milton police sergeant and a mother who was a Mayflower descendant, he remembers a rough-and-tumble Irish paternal grandfather, and a more patrician maternal grandfather who passed on to Connor a passion for Japanese weaponry and suits of armor. Connor seems to have imbibed and combined both men’s influences. An appreciation for art coursed through him from his earliest days. Stealing it would come easy, especially when he felt that an institution had been indifferent to him, to someone he loved, or to its collection.

Wound tight as a toy snake in a can, Connor can be explosively uncontainable. Over a meal with friends, when laughter overtakes him, it’s part of his considerable charm. One can imagine that same unhinged energy producing a more terrifying effect.

At the old Al’s Spaghetti House in Nantasket Beach, where Connor’s band, Myles Connor and the Wild Ones, drew sellout crowds in between his prison stints in the 1960s, Connor was sometimes the target, and sometimes the instigator, of some legendary dustups. His oldest and most steadfast friend, Al Dotoli, towered over Connor then as now, and was caught up in many of them.

Myles Connor's oldest friend, concert producer Al Dotoli, smiled while reminiscing over lunch. He regrets that he wasn’t able to keep his friend — who “could play Chuck Berry like Chuck Berry” — on the stage.
Myles Connor's oldest friend, concert producer Al Dotoli, smiled while reminiscing over lunch. He regrets that he wasn’t able to keep his friend — who “could play Chuck Berry like Chuck Berry” — on the stage. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“I remember barroom brawls we used to get into,” Connor says. “All I used to see was arms and legs. Al was like a big spider monkey nailing these guys!” He’s hoarse with glee at the memory.

“As opposed to him,” says Dotoli, who has joined Amore and Connor’s lunch, “all I saw was a pile, and he was on the bottom of it!”

Dotoli has spent a long career producing concerts for the likes of James Cotton, the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Dionne Warwick, and Frank Sinatra. He regrets that he wasn’t able to keep his friend — who “could play Chuck Berry like Chuck Berry” — on the stage. “I managed Myles through his whole career. And it was always very difficult,” Dotoli says, referring to Connor’s many arrests. “But the more he got in trouble, the bigger he was a star. The fans loved it.”

The outlaw code

“The things that matter to me,” Connor says, “are loyalty, ethics, believe it or not, because it can be argued that I had none, but I do. It's like the old outlaw code: You keep your word, don't backstab anyone, and try not to hurt anybody that's innocent.”

But not all of Connor’s exploits bore the cinematic shimmer of art theft. “Myles and his coterie of friends do a lot to glamorize him,” says Ulrich Boser, author of the book “The Gardner Heist.” “This is a criminal.”

To be fair, it’s not exactly hard to do. The once flame-haired rock star is also a member of Mensa, the high IQ society. Upon his release — he calls it “graduation” — from Walpole, in 1972, Connor says that his near-perfect SAT scores had won him a spot in Harvard’s incoming class. He chose opening for Roy Orbison and Sha Na Na over a more distant dream of medical school.

But then, again and again, Connor chose crime.

“He is unrepentant, in my opinion,” Boser says. “Look at what he has actually done: shooting a police officer, knowing enough about a gruesome [double] murder to lead police to [the women’s] grave. And then, when I met him, he just told a number of stories that alone were quite disturbing.”

What of Connor’s friendship with Amore? “I do not believe that this undermines Anthony’s work or his credibility,” Boser says. “Is Anthony the best case, the best hope for bringing these paintings home? Yes. But I would add an addendum. Someone somewhere knows where these are, and that someone almost certainly has a connection to someone who has done some unsavory things. It makes sense to me that Anthony is reaching out and having conversations with people like that.”

No one seems more aware of the optics of this friendship than Connor himself. “Well, from my viewpoint, I’m very fortunate to have a friend like Anthony, because of his position and situation, and my reputation,” he says. “I’m aware that he must catch hell from people in his profession that say, ‘What the hell are you hanging around with this guy for?’ ”

Amore fields many questions about his friendship with Connor. "You can't learn to be a good art theft recovery person or a security person without speaking to the experts in taking them," Amore says.
Amore fields many questions about his friendship with Connor. "You can't learn to be a good art theft recovery person or a security person without speaking to the experts in taking them," Amore says.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It’s true. Amore does. And he’s considered this question, too. “Yeah, you know, I do stop and say my whole life is about returning stolen art. Much of Myles’s was taking it. But pragmatically, too, you can’t learn to be a good art theft recovery person or a security person without speaking to the experts in taking them.”

Outlaw code or no, Amore and Connor share more than a fascination with stolen art. They go to concerts together — Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Hart — and they often share a meal. They speak by phone several times a week and leave each other jokey voice mails. Just like friends do.

When Connor underwent triple bypass surgery last November, Amore was a frequent visitor at his bedside. He recalls that Connor had asked him to bring two things: a book about samurai swords — Connor is an aficionado and a collector — and soy sauce. Another visitor had brought Connor sushi, his favorite. Owing to his open-heart surgery, however, she skimped on the high-sodium condiment.

“He said, ‘Yeah, can you bring me some Kikkoman soy sauce?’ ” Amore says. “And I forget what holiday it was, but nothing was open. So I’m driving around, and I see a 7-Eleven. Believe it or not, they had soy sauce, and I bring it to him. I go, ‘Hey, look what I got. I brought you the soy sauce!’ He goes, ‘This is La Choy. It’s not Kikkoman.’ He doesn’t want it! And he’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter. I ate the sushi anyway.’ ”

When Amore tells this story, he has to raise his voice a little to be heard, because Connor has unleashed that laugh again.

Amore pauses for a moment, and says, “God, I wish Myles was the thief. I think to myself, I wish it had been him, because we’d have our stuff back. You know, it’s just, the one place he didn’t rob is the one place that hasn’t gotten its stuff back.”

But surely Connor, who knew the men he says robbed the Gardner, must have some insight into what they would have done with the art.

“I’m not sure,” Connor says. “I know Bobby had some connections in New York with organized crime.”

Connor recalls a New York trip with Donati “to meet a guy.” The man in question claimed to run a lucrative side hustle, Connor says, fencing stolen art to wealthy buyers overseas.

“And I said, ‘How do you get these paintings out of the country?’ And you know, I’ve always known you can’t roll up an oil painting because you damage it. But he claimed that he could, and he had a couple of big empty cardboard rolls. And he said, ‘I’d just put them in these things, and then send them to Europe.’

“You have people with billions of dollars,” Connor continues. “They have 20 Rolls Royces, a couple lions, a couple hippos. It stands to reason that they have their own art collections.”

Fanciful, Amore says. But unlikely. Asked where he thinks the art is, Amore says, “In typical art theft scenarios, we know that stolen art doesn’t travel far. But then, nothing about the Gardner heist is typical, which is why I will continue to investigate every single lead.”

Dotoli adds a note of hope. “If the fat lady is going to sing at all on the Gardner thing, these two will do it. There’s no other way it’s going to happen. This will be the team.”