Thirty years after thieves robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of artwork valued at more than half a billion dollars, the empty frames still hang on the walls, a stark reminder of one of Boston’s most perplexing crimes and the abiding hope it will one day be solved.
In an investigation filled with false leads, dashed theories, and a rogues’ gallery of mobsters and con men, among the most tantalizing clues was a smattering of microscopic paint chips that specialists said may have come from the Gardner’s stolen Vermeer, a 1664 masterpiece called “The Concert.” One analyst likened the chips’ distinctive features to a fingerprint, a strong clue to their origin.
If the flecks of paint that mysteriously surfaced in 1997 were indeed from the masterpiece, they would stand as the only tangible evidence of the artwork’s existence since the theft, a symbol of a case in which hope — time and again — gives way to disappointment.
“This is emblematic of the investigation," Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum’s head of security, said in a recent interview. “Everything is close, but not there."
The chips came from an antiques dealer who was trying to collect a reward seven years after the 1990 heist. At the time, he was unable to deliver on his promise to return the stolen masterworks and was dismissed as a con man eyeing a lucrative reward and a reprieve from criminal charges. But looking back, Amore said authorities can’t discount the possibility that the chips are genuine.
“There are a few things in this case that haunt me and that’s one of them,” said Amore, who has partnered with the FBI and federal prosecutors on the investigation since he became the museum’s security director 15 years ago. “To have paint chips that are consistent not just with a Vermeer, but “The Concert,” is beyond luck. It means that they should be considered as a very strong piece of possible physical evidence."
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the Gardner Museum, tied up the two guards, and pulled and slashed masterpieces from their frames.
They stole 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; Vermeer’s “The Concert”; works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas; an ancient Chinese vase; and a bronze finial eagle from atop a Napoleonic flag.
Despite a reward that has climbed to $10 million and promises of immunity, none of the pieces has been recovered. Nobody has ever been charged with the crime, and many suspects have since died.
In 1997, William P. Youngworth III, a Randolph antiques dealer with ties to notorious art thief Myles Connor, claimed he had access to the stolen art and could broker its return. In exchange he wanted the reward, then $5 million, the dismissal of pending criminal charges against him, and the release of Connor, who had a couple more years remaining on a 10-year prison sentence.
Youngworth and Connor had both been in prison when the museum was robbed, but investigators had long speculated that Connor was cunning enough to get his hands on the stolen artwork. In the 1970s, Connor stole a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, then brokered its return to avoid jail in an unrelated case.
In August 1997, the Boston Herald ran a front-page headline, “We’ve Seen It!” In a sensational story, reporter Tom Mashberg described being led to a dark warehouse by Youngworth and shown under the glow of a flashlight what appeared to be Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
The story triggered months of negotiations between federal authorities and Youngworth. Connor was flown in from a federal penitentiary in Illinois so the pair could meet privately at the US Marshal’s office in Boston.
From the start, authorities were doubtful.
“I had deep skepticism from the beginning, but the museum obviously had a deep desire to get the paintings back and had some ray of hope," said former US attorney Donald K. Stern, who oversaw his office’s negotiations with Youngworth. "It was worth a shot.”
Stern said he was prepared to make a deal with Youngworth, whose lengthy criminal record included convictions for larceny, forgery, drugs, and weapons, but only if he provided credible proof that he had the stolen artwork.
As proof, Youngworth offered the paint chips and a roll of negatives, purportedly of the Gardner’s two stolen Rembrandts. The items were initially delivered to the Herald, which reported in October 1997 that Walter McCrone, a Chicago-based art expert, had concluded the chips were “100 percent unadulterated Rembrandt.”
Federal authorities were intrigued but wary, because Youngworth had yet to share any evidence directly with them to back up his claim.
The Herald turned the chips over to authorities, but negotiations stalled as the FBI conducted its own testing. In the meantime, Youngworth was sentenced to two to three years in prison for possession of a stolen van. In November 1997, while Youngworth was in prison, his wife died of a drug overdose.
That December, federal authorities said they had compared the chips to flakes that were left behind when the two Rembrandts were slashed from their frames and determined they were not a match. And the roll of film provided by Youngworth was merely photographs of images of the stolen paintings and not, as he had claimed, the actual artwork.
That seemed to be the end of the saga. But three months later, the investigation took a startling twist. Two art experts, who had been hired by the museum to conduct a pigment analysis of the chips, concluded they were “consistent” with the Gardner’s stolen Vermeer, according to Amore. One of those experts was Hermann Kuhn, who had examined chips from “The Concert” in 1968 while conducting a research project on Vermeers.
Neither expert could be certain that the chips came from “The Concert,” but one believed there was “a strong indication” that they did, Amore said.
“But by then, the idea that the chips were wrong was the narrative,” Mashberg said. “In my opinion the chips are the single best clue in the entire case.”
In 2003, the FBI asked another expert, Hubert von Sonnenburg, one of the world’s leading painting conservators and chairman of paintings conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to examine the chips. He found they contained red lake, the same color Vermeer used on the blanket in “The Concert," according to the FBI.
Two art experts interviewed by the Globe said they couldn’t fairly assess the examinations done decades ago without reviewing the reports, which authorities have not released.
But Jennifer Mass, president of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, a New York-based firm that analyzes and authenticates fine art, said it would be “extremely challenging,” if not impossible, to produce a paint chip that appeared to be a likely match to the stolen Vermeer.
“The mixture of the pigments and the layer structure of the painting together make almost a fingerprint for a specific work of art,” Mass said.
The color “red lake” was used by many 17th-century Dutch artists, Mass said. But there was likely something specific that led von Sonnenburg to conclude that it was consistent with the Vermeer, she said.
She said specialists at the time would not have been able to determine definitively whether the chips came from a particular Vermeer, but could say it “with a high degree of certainty."
Von Sonnenburg died in 2004.
Mass said new technology could possibly provide more certainty, but it’s difficult to say without reviewing the pigment identification techniques used in 1998 and 2003.
Thiago Piwowarczyk, a scientist and cofounder of New York Art Forensics, said there has been extensive research on the pigments used by Vermeer, which could play into the hands of forgers.
“Taking into account that you have all this information and someone with some professional experience or time to educate oneself, it’s possible to get some samples that would be enough to entertain an expert,” Piwowarczyk said.
But in that scenario, the person offering the chips would eventually have to deliver the painting. In Youngworth’s case, that didn’t happen.
Efforts to reach Youngworth, 60, who lives in Springfield, were unsuccessful. He stopped talking to authorities after he went to prison and his wife died, according to several former prosecutors assigned to the case.
Connor, now 77 and living in Rhode Island, said he doesn’t know where Youngworth got the paint chips.
“My gut feeling is he was pulling some sort of a con,” Connor said during a brief telephone interview. But if Youngworth had genuine chips from the stolen Vermeer, they were likely stashed by one of the Gardner thieves in a trailer that belonged to Connor, he quickly added.
In Connor’s 2010 autobiography, "The Art of The Heist,” he said a longtime friend, David Houghton, visited him in prison shortly after the robbery and told him that another friend, Robert Donati, was one of the Gardner thieves. He said they planned to leverage the artwork to win Connor’s release.
But, like many suspects in the Gardner theft, Houghton and Donati are long dead. Houghton died of a heart attack in 1991; Donati, a Boston mob associate, was stabbed and beaten to death that same year.
According to Connor, Houghton and Donati had access to a trailer that was packed with his belongings and stored on Youngworth’s property in Randolph. It’s possible they hid some of the stolen artwork there and the Youngworths discovered it, he said.
“I trusted Youngworth with my property, but that turned out to be a mistake,” Connor said. Youngworth and his wife were both drug addicts and sold all of his belongings, which included a vast collection of samurai swords and artwork, he said.
Yet it was just as possible that Youngworth conned authorities with paint chips that had no link to the Gardner theft, Connor acknowledged.
He said he has seen paintings from Vermeer’s era sell for as little as $400 at estate sales. He said someone could also get paint chips “just by going to a museum and wiping (a painting) when no one is looking with a razor."
It would be difficult to scrape paint from a Vermeer, however; there are only 36 in the world.
Martin Leppo, a lawyer who has represented Connor, Youngworth, and a handful of other suspects in the Gardner investigation, said, “I don’t know where Billy got the paint chips, but he’s very innovative.”
Youngworth apparently couldn’t produce the stolen paintings to get Connor out of prison, Leppo said, but tried his best to exploit the situation.
“It was a nice thought,” he said.
Tom Cassano, a retired FBI agent who was supervising the Gardner investigation during negotiations with Youngworth, said the antiques dealer wouldn’t deal with the FBI and convinced a museum trustee to pay him $10,000.
“We always thought he probably scraped some chips off an old painting that he had,” Cassano said. “He really conned a lot of people. He got some money from the museum and I think that was his entire purpose.”
Still, agents didn’t discount Youngworth, Cassano said. They followed every lead, “but nothing ever panned out.”
FBI spokeswoman Kristen Setera said the investigation remains active, focusing on recovering the artwork and returning it to the museum.
“Thirty years later we have not given up — we will continue to follow the leads wherever they take us," US Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. "I encourage anyone with information to call.”
Amore has speculated that perhaps it was Youngworth’s late wife, Judy, who had access to the paintings and hid them somewhere before she died.
“Either they got incredibly lucky taking chips off another painting, or they had access to our painting,” he said.