Charley Hill wasn’t the first to suggest that late Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger was either involved with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in 1990 or knew where the stolen paintings ended up, but his formidable reputation as an art theft detective added clout to the theory.
“It is inconceivable to me that Whitey did not know why the Gardner Museum paintings were stolen and where they went,” he told the Garage arts and culture website in 2018. “Even the dogs in the streets of South Boston on the new morning of March 18, 1990, must have known that Whitey was involved in some way before, during, or after the robbery took place.”
A former Scotland Yard detective whose accomplishments included tracking down Edvard Munch’s stolen masterwork “The Scream,” Mr. Hill died of a torn aorta Feb. 20 in a London hospital. He was 73 and lived in West London.
“There is no hard evidence for this,” Mr. Hill said of his theory that Bulger was involved in the theft of the Gardner’s 13 artworks, whose value is now estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, “but I combat art crime both rationally and irrationally, intellectually and viscerally. That technique serves me well as a style and measure of success.”
That success was quantified in no small part by his recovery of “The Scream,” which was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in spring 1994, four years after the Gardner heist.
Mr. Hill and other detectives located an art dealer with connections to the thieves who had taken “The Scream.” Using the alias Chris Roberts, Mr. Hill posed as someone willing to pay hundreds of thousands for the stolen painting and soon found himself outside the art dealer’s summer home in Norway.
“The denouement of the drama came when I was invited to go down to the basement to claim the painting,” Mr. Hill told Garage.
Mr. Hill preferred not to risk being trapped in the basement if the dealer suddenly figured out that he was a Scotland Yard detective, so he stayed outside while the art dealer fetched the masterpiece.
“I unwrapped it from a blue sheet and saw first where Munch had started painting on what’s now the back,” Mr. Hill told Garage. “The picture is painted on heavy cardboard, which surprised me, but I turned it over and there was the famous image, including the original splatter marks where Munch blew out a candle on it. I said something original like ‘Holy mackerel’ while I admired it.”
To find the unfindable, even before he turned his attention to the Gardner theft, Mr. Hill engaged in old-fashioned detective work.
“What I do is I talk to people,” he told the Globe in 2010. “I seek out criminals in a one-to-one manner. Just talk to them straight.”
But while his preferred approach was “the old shoe-leather thing,” he added, “we have a craving for information in our society now as far as data, and so we need all the refinements of DNA – and we also need to think it will help us in all the crimes we look at. In the Gardner’s case, the pictures are gone. They can get some DNA, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the DNA matches that of a couple of dead guys. Great. Where does that take you?”
Born in Cambridge, England, on May 22, 1947, Charles Patrick Landon Hill was the second of three siblings.
Mr. Hill’s mother, Zita Widdrington, had been a dancer before marrying.
His father was Landon Hill, who had been born in Oklahoma and served during and after World War II in the Army Air Forces and then the Air Force. As the war was ending, Landon Hill was among the first to enter the Dachau concentration camp, upon its liberation from the Nazis. A mathematician by training, he later worked on missiles during the Cold War.
Known always as Charley, Mr. Hill graduated from St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.
He attended Trinity College in Hartford before dropping out to join the US Army, serving during the Vietnam War as a paratrooper.
“In his own words, he said he volunteered for the draft because a lot of people in his circumstances were able to get out of it,” said his son, Chris of London. “He thought that was morally not the right thing to do.”
Rather than take advantage of the privilege afforded his peers, Mr. Hill went to Vietnam, where he sidestepped death by accident and later would say that “‘war is an absolute futility,’ or something along those lines,” Chris recalled. “At one point, his entire unit was gunned down, and he had broken his glasses the day before so he didn’t go out with them.”
After his military service, Mr. Hill graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
He attended Trinity College in Dublin on a Fulbright scholarship, taught math at a Belfast school for a couple of years, and attended King’s College London, where he studied theology.
Mr. Hill considered becoming a priest in the Church of England, prompted in part by his time in Vietnam.
“It was an incredibly traumatizing experience,” Chris said. “The horrors of that led to his firmness in faith.”
Instead, he was hired by the Metropolitan Police, the official name for what is known as Scotland Yard, in the late 1970s. Even there, faith was part of his approach.
To thieves and sources who revealed key information, “he was offering redemption – this is the right thing to do for your soul,” Chris said.
Though Mr. Hill retired after some 20 years with the Metropolitan Police, he kept working as an art detective for an insurance company and then privately.
In 1979, he married Caroline Stewart, the sister of a friend. She formerly was a civil servant in the British government’s Ministry of Justice.
A private service has been held for Mr. Hill, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two daughters, Susannah Lannoy of London and Elizabeth of Alameda, Calif.; two sisters, Martha Harmon of Maine and Nikki Baugh of Oxford, England; and two granddaughters.
Among Mr. Hill’s earlier successes was helping to locate Johannes Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid,” after it was among the paintings stolen from the Russborough House mansion in Ireland during a 1986 theft engineered by notorious Irish criminal Martin Cahill.
Mr. Hill called finding the Vermeer “my greatest thrill.”
His visits to various countries while tracking down stolen art led him to infuse his family life with a zest for travel.
“One of the biggest legacies he’s given us is the sense of adventure and the joy of adventure,” Chris said.
Vacations sometimes involved visiting the site of an art theft, and “once or twice it was, ‘Let’s go see if we can find Whitey Bulger,’ " Chris added.
“As in work, he always took his own path and jumped at things – ‘Let’s try it.’ He did that in his personal life, too. That’s an enormous thing we will always have.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.