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the story behind the book

Stephen Kurkjian’s ‘Master Thieves’

david wilson for the boston glob

“My father was an artist. Loved Rembrandt, loved Vermeer,” said Stephen Kurkjian. “So this case is important to me.” He’s talking about the 1990 theft of 13 pieces of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a still-unsolved crime that’s at the heart of his newest book, “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist.”

A veteran Boston Globe journalist (he retired in 2007 after four decades and three Pulitzer Prizes), Kurkjian’s BACKGROUND AS AN investigative reporter is ON DISPLAY EVERYWHERE IN THIS story, which he started covering in 1997 after the FBI had failed to crack it. “This has, in effect, become a cold case,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s got to be another way to put this Rubik’s Cube together.”

Kurkjian’s book critiques the FBI’s theory of the case and probes deeper into the longstanding criminal landscape of the city. “In a six-month period I was able to get interviews with a half a dozen people who had never talked to the FBI,” Kurkjian said. “And I think I did very valuable work in both confirmation, and also adding a little doubt in some places, to the official account.”


The key now, Kurkjian argued, is to crowdsource the investigation and bring the paintings home. Twenty-five years is a long time for anyone to keep a secret. If the thieves won’t show themselves, why not put public pressure on their friends and relatives? The statute of limitations has passed, he pointed out, and the $5 million reward still stands.

“My sense is what there needs to be is such a greater public awareness of this loss and what this loss means to us. When I say ‘us,’ in my heart I mean Boston, but what it really means is all of civilization,” he said. “A world-class city does not allow three Rembrandts and a Vermeer to remain missing.”

“I’m clueless as to why this isn’t more important to all of us,” Kurkjian continued.

“I’m a Boston boy,” added the Dorchester native, an alumnus of Boston Latin, Boston University, and Suffolk Law School. “This story compels me.”

Kurkjian will read 7 p.m. Friday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at