On a spring morning in 1990, Paul Calantropo was alone in his eighth-floor office at the Jeweler’s Building in downtown Boston when he looked up at a security camera and spotted a familiar figure walking down the hallway toward his door. He buzzed him inside.
It was Bobby Donati, a friend Calantropo had met decades earlier as a teenager in Everett. Over the years, Calantropo had appraised diamonds, jewelry, and other items Donati brought in, but said he was always uneasy about it because he knew that Donati had been in and out of jail for robbery and hung out with local mobsters.
As they sat across from each other, Donati unwrapped a shiny finial in the shape of an eagle, according to Calantropo. He placed the decorative piece, designed for the top of a flagstaff, on a desk and asked how much it was worth.
Calantropo was stunned. He immediately recognized the gilded bronze object from media reports as one of 13 pieces of artwork, including several Rembrandts, that had been stolen about a month earlier from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, he told the Globe in an lengthy interview.
“Jesus, Bobby why didn’t you steal the Mona Lisa?” Calantropo recalled asking him.
Donati laughed as he lifted the finial and urged Calantropo to feel how heavy it was, Calantropo said. He refused, unwilling to leave his fingerprints. The artwork was worthless, he said. The whole world knew it was stolen.
Donati wrapped it up and left. It was the last time Calantropo saw him. The following year, Donati, 50, was brutally murdered. His killer has never been found. Neither, of course, has the finial, swiped from atop a Napoleonic flag during the brazen heist.
Three decades later, the largest art theft in US history remains unsolved, despite a $10 million reward. No one has been charged and none of the artwork has been recovered.
Now 70, Calantropo is speaking publicly for the first time about his meeting with Donati, whose name first surfaced as a potential suspect in the heist in the late 1990s. Calantropo, a jeweler and fine arts appraiser for more than 40 years before he retired to Florida, said he has no doubt the artwork Donati showed him had been stolen from the museum. He said he kept quiet about it for years because he feared for his safety. Five years ago, at the urging of a friend, he said he met with an FBI agent and the museum’s security director and told them about Donati’s visit, along with a detailed description of the finial.
The reported sighting of the stolen finial, so soon after the theft, offers a tantalizing clue in the enduring mystery, bolstering other accounts linking Donati to the crime. Over the past year, Calantropo has been working behind the scenes with an unlikely assortment of sleuths — including a retired law enforcement official, two former convicts and retired Boston Globe investigative reporter Stephen Kurkjian — in hopes of finding the artwork.
In April, the group signed an agreement with the Gardner Museum, which stipulates that the members will share equally in the reward if they provide information that leads to the return of the artwork in restorable condition, according to a copy of the document Kurkjian shared with the Globe, along with a detailed account of his work with the group.
Members of the group said they gave the FBI several addresses that Donati may have frequented, including a house in Everett where his former wife and sister had lived. In August, the FBI conducted a thorough search there but turned up nothing, according to Michael Kradolfer, a longtime investigator for the Massachusetts Department of Correction who was assigned to the FBI’s organized crime unit before retiring several years ago.
“I was pretty crestfallen,” said Calantropo, a member of the group who is convinced that Donati hid the artwork somewhere before he died. “I believe the secret of the location died with Bobby.”
FBI spokeswoman Kristen Setera declined to comment on Calantropo’s account or whether Donati is believed to have been involved in the heist, citing the ongoing investigation. She said the FBI is “focused on recovering the art and returning it to its rightful place at the museum,” and “we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to remind everyone that the museum is still offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of the artwork in good condition.”
A spokesman for the Gardner Museum declined to comment.
But Kradolfer, who arranged the 2016 meeting between Calantropo and the FBI agent who was spearheading the Gardner theft investigation, said the FBI told him that Calantropo’s recollection of the physical characteristics of the finial was consistent with the one stolen from the museum, lending credence to his account.
“I’m thinking it’s huge,” Kradolfer said. “I knew if it was true it pretty much identifies Donati as one of the thieves and that he had access to the paintings.”
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed like police officers talked their way into the museum in the Fenway, tied up two young guards, and 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 the finial. The value of the artwork is now estimated at more than $500 million.
There have since been countless theories, a wide array of suspects, and voluminous reports throughout the world of sightings of the masterworks, but few have been deemed credible by authorities.
In 2013, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves — local criminals who have since died — but declined to name them. Authorities said they believed some of the artwork changed hands through organized crime circles while moving from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold. A witness deemed credible by the FBI claims to have seen one of the paintings, “The Storm,” when someone tried to sell it in Philadelphia around 2003, the FBI has said. In 2015, the museum offered a $100,000 reward for information leading directly to the finial, the least valuable item stolen.
The FBI has never publicly identified Donati as a suspect. But notorious art thief Myles Connor wrote in his 2011 biography that he had cased the Gardner museum with Donati years before the theft. Connor also said a longtime friend, David Houghton, visited him in prison shortly after the robbery and told him Donati was one of the thieves and they planned to leverage the artwork to win Connor’s release. But Houghton died of heart disease in 1991.
In his 2015 book, “Master Thieves,” Kurkjian wrote that former New England Mafia capo Vincent Ferrara claimed that in 1990 Donati confessed to him that he robbed the museum, buried the artwork, and planned to use it to try to broker Ferrara’s release from prison.
But in September 1991, Donati was attacked outside his Revere home and his body was found several days later in the trunk of his Cadillac, parked a mile away. He had been stabbed repeatedly and his throat was slashed. At the time, law enforcement officials speculated that he was targeted because of his close ties to Ferrara, who was part of a renegade faction vying for control of the New England Mafia. Donati’s criminal record dated to the 1950s and included convictions for armed robbery, arson, bond theft and possession of counterfeit bills. He was under investigation for drug trafficking at the time of his slaying, according to authorities.
Kurkjian said he traveled to Florida to meet Calantropo last year after learning about his claim that Donati asked him to appraise the stolen finial and found it to be “the most authoritative account that I had heard of someone seeing any of the stolen pieces after the theft.”
Kurkjian also shared a 2016 letter he obtained from a federal inmate that showed investigators were focusing intensely on Donati in their hunt for the paintings. In the letter, Anthony Amore, the Gardner museum’s security director, asked whether the inmate could provide any information about Donati and another potential suspect who had died.
Amore wrote that he had reason to believe Donati “was involved in the theft and possession of our paintings, and my reasons extend far beyond what had been reported in various media reports and books.”
Robert Fisher, a former assistant US attorney who oversaw the Gardner investigation from 2010 to 2016, said Donati was investigated as a potential suspect before Calantropo came forward, and that he personally participated in an FBI search of the Revere home where Donati had been living at the time of his murder.
He said the theory that Donati hid the artwork before he was murdered would explain why it has never been discovered. But he said he remained unconvinced that Calantropo’s account was proof of Donati’s involvement.
“Until these things are found, everyone’s thought process on this is still a theory,” Fisher said. “I think I need more than that story to make Donati the prime suspect. I would need corroboration that the story is even accurate, that this guy did, in fact, see the finial.”
A former convict who is among the five people who signed the agreement with the Gardner museum said he believes Calantropo’s account is credible. He said Calantropo first told him about it 20 years ago and it took him years to convince Calantropo to talk to the FBI and assist in the effort to recover the paintings.
“Donati trusted nobody,” said the man, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “I really believe that Donati buried them and I believe one day someone is going to open up a wall and find them.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.