Why was William Youngworth so restless?
Maybe it was nerves. The ex-con already had an illegal weapons charge hanging over his head, and the FBI had grown skeptical of his claims that he could facilitate the return of 13 prized works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
But museum director Anne Hawley held out hope. The missing works, including masterpieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And Hawley, who had arrived as director just six months before the 1990 heist, would do almost anything to get them back.
Hawley, accompanied by museum board member Arnold Hiatt, agreed to a back-channel meeting, negotiating with Youngworth at a tony New York hotel in September 1997. “We tried to do it under the radar,” Hawley explained in a recent interview.
The discussion lasted hours, after which Hiatt agreed to personally loan Youngworth $10,000 to aid the recovery.
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That meeting, like so many other efforts, would ultimately prove fruitless — a dead end on a 25-year odyssey for the Gardner and the FBI that has spawned thousands of false leads, prompting investigators to hunt the art from Boston to Japan, Ireland to France. For Hawley, who recently announced plans to retire at the end of the year, the loss has been both professional and deeply personal. A shadow across her largely sunny tenure, the case remains unsolved.
When Hawley arrived at the Gardner on the morning of March 18, 1990, she found her museum violated, gilded frames and glass smashed on the floor. Staff members were in shock. “People were angry at the museum. Some of the press was antagonistic,” Hawley recalled. “It was devastating, but what happens is, you really fight. I was just not going to be defeated by that.”
Hawley endured death threats in the months immediately following the robbery. She twice evacuated the museum after bomb scares, and the FBI instructed her to take a different route home each night from work.
“They scared me,” said Hawley. “I wouldn’t go out of my house alone at night.”
Meanwhile, she was also the museum’s main liaison with the FBI, a role that only steepened the theft’s emotional toll as they sought to retrieve the coveted works.
“Some of the leads were so compelling, you thought you were almost there,” she said. “You’d get emotionally caught up in it, then you’re overlooking a chasm.”
Although she was hired with a mandate to revive the museum, the theft, which the FBI still lists as the largest property crime in US history, threw Hawley and her staff into a world few museums are prepared to inhabit.
“It really tests every part of you,” said Sandy Nairne, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, who oversaw the recovery of two stolen J.M.W. Turner paintings when he was director of programs at the Tate.
“It is incredibly difficult,” he said. “Not only is it an intrusion in every sense, but it also breaks all the ordinary expectations of running an institution.”
Susan Hartnett, now executive director at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, came in to assist Hawley shortly after the robbery. She remembers that she arrived to find the Gardner staff traumatized.
“There were literally staff members collapsing,” said Hartnett. “All we had was the trace of the paintings, where people were touching the silk [wallcoverings]. That to me demonstrated the depth of the attachment people had to them. There was disbelief this was happening. They needed to touch it themselves.”
The theft even invaded Hawley’s dreams: She once imagined that two spaces in the Gardner Museum — the Chinese Loggia and Spanish Cloister — had been turned into a Gap store.
“It was like ‘What next?’,” Hawley said. “I’m dealing with the netherworld.”
Hiatt, who in the days after the theft organized a reward, said that though Hawley was deeply involved in the paintings’ recovery, it didn’t take away from her duties as director. “I don’t think it slowed her down,” he said. “It hurt her deeply, and she wanted to follow up on the leads, which we did together.”
But if the robbery caused Hawley nightmares, her mornings brought little relief. Arriving at the museum early one day, she recalls, a security guard told her there was a woman on the phone for her. When Hawley picked up, the voice on the other end was desperate, calling from a parking lot in Walpole.
“She’d had her leg broken because she said she knew too much about our investigation and that people were trying to kill her,” Hawley recounted. “I’m saying, ‘How do we find you? Where’s the car?’ ”
The FBI eventually located the woman. She apparently did have information, according to Hawley, but as has so often happened in this case, it wasn’t very useful to investigators.
Another early tip led to Japan in 1992, after a US teacher visited the home of a wealthy Japanese businessman. As they toured his private gallery, Hawley said, the host walked his guest past canvases by van Gogh and Monet.
“Then he pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” ’ ” said Hawley, recalling that the teacher called the Cleveland Museum of Art, which in turn contacted the Gardner.
Hawley alerted the FBI, which launched an investigation that involved Interpol and the Japanese authorities.
With so many moving parts, Hawley tried to accelerate matters by reaching out to Joan Mondale, whose husband, former vice president Walter Mondale, was appointed US ambassador to Japan in 1993.
When investigators finally received permission to enter the house, Hawley dispatched the museum’s chief conservator to Japan to analyze the painting.
The businessman was horrified, recalled Hawley. “He had fakes. The whole collection was fakes.”
Hawley may laugh about it now, but at the time she was crushed.
“So much energy had been expended on it,” she said. “At a certain point I developed this distancing capacity. I wouldn’t believe in anything. I would just be clinical about it.”
The 1997 meeting in New York would mark the last time Hawley became personally involved in the theft investigation.
At that point, Youngworth had a sheen of credibility: One month earlier, the ex-con had arranged for a Boston Herald reporter to see what was purportedly Rembrandt’s stolen seascape.
“The FBI didn’t seem to follow up on it,” said Hiatt, now a board member emeritus. “He kind of sold me the Brooklyn Bridge. He was very convincing.”
Yet Hawley found Youngworth’s behavior strange, recalling that he would excuse himself every 15 minutes or so to use the bathroom.
“It turns out he was wearing a wire,” Hawley said — a charge Youngworth later denied. When they emerged, “TV crews were there,” Hawley said. “That’s what happens when you try to take it into your own hands. We were on ABC news.”
Hawley has since handed over the investigation’s day-to-day operations to the museum’s security director, Anthony Amore, who arrived in 2005.
Amore, a former senior Homeland Security official, has compiled a vast database about the Gardner and other art thefts. He remains hopeful the works will be recovered.
“People think that 25 years on might be a reason to give up hope, but it’s not,” said Amore. “When masterpieces are stolen, they’re typically recovered either right away or a generation later. We’re at that generation-later phase.”
That’s a comfort to Hawley.
“Maybe it’s a fool’s paradise, but I just don’t believe that we won’t get them back,” she said. “He has the data. I’m living on hope.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.