Metro

Search for artworks from Gardner heist continues 25 years later

The FBI is so confident it knows who stole $500 million worth of masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum , it has repeatedly touted its theory in recent months with PowerPoint presentations at libraries, colleges, and museums.

The illustrated whodunit, featuring crime scene photos from the March 18, 1990, heist, points to a local band of petty thieves — many now dead — with ties to dysfunctional Mafia families in New England and Philadelphia. It also suggests they had help from an employee or someone connected to the museum.

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The clues are voluminous and tantalizing: a suspect who drove a 1988 red Dodge Daytona matching the description of the thieves’ car; a secret door left ajar in a gallery, raising suspicion about an inside job; an alleged sighting of the stolen “Chez Tortoni” by Manet in a Quincy apartment; a hidden compartment under the floorboards of a shed in the Connecticut yard of a reputed mobster dubbed a “person of interest” in the heist.

RELATED | An open letter: Please return Gardner Museum treasures

Still, 25 years after two men dressed like police officers talked their way into the museum on the Fenway in the early-morning hours after St. Patrick’s Day, tied up two young guards, and vanished with 13 masterworks, it remains one of Boston’s most enduring and baffling mysteries.

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Time and again the trail has gone cold. Investigators have not recovered any of the stolen masterpieces, and nobody has ever faced charges for what remains the world’s largest art theft.

Gone are two paintings by Rembrandt, both cut from their frames, as well as paintings by Vermeer, Manet, and Flinck; a stamp-sized self-portrait etched by Rembrandt; five sketches by Degas; an ancient Chinese vase; and a bronze eagle finial swiped from a Napoleonic flag.

The crime has spawned countless theories involving a dizzying array of suspects, from South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger to a now-deceased California screenplay writer, and been the fodder of numerous books and documentaries.

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The FBI has searched basements and attics, conducted elaborate sting operations from Miami to Marseille, and tracked thousands of leads in the United States, Japan, England, Ireland, Russia, Canada, and Spain.

“If these paintings do not get recovered — and I hope that’s not the case — it’s not going to be for lack of trying by the FBI, the museum, and the US attorney’s office,” said FBI Special Agent Geoff Kelly, who has spearheaded the investigation for a dozen years.

During a lengthy interview with the Globe last week, Kelly and Anthony Amore, who has partnered with the FBI and federal prosecutors on the investigation since he became the Gardner museum’s security director 10 years ago, shared their PowerPoint presentation and said they remained convinced they were on the right track.

So why haven’t they cracked the case, despite the offer of a $5 million reward and promises of immunity from prosecution?

“It’s a high hurdle to overcome to convince the type of people who might be in possession of the paintings that we are earnest,” Kelly said. “There’s also the possibility that whoever had these paintings has died and the paintings are hidden somewhere.”

Gardner Museum security director Anthony Amore was reflected in a TV screen as he showed evidence in the ongoing investigation.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Gardner Museum security director Anthony Amore was reflected in a TV screen as he showed evidence in the ongoing investigation.

The thieves cannot be prosecuted because the five-year statute of limitations for the robbery expired decades ago. However, anyone caught knowingly hiding, moving, or trying to sell the stolen treasure could face charges.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said her office would consider granting immunity to anyone, including the thieves, if they orchestrate the return of the artwork. However, she said, immunity probably would not be given in some circumstances, such as if someone killed to get the paintings.

“We want to be as encouraging as possible to anybody who may have information,” Ortiz said. “Anyone who has information can have a lawyer contact our office and represent their interest.”

There are also conditions on the reward: The Gardner Museum will not knowingly give the $5 million reward to the thieves.

“The reward is for information which leads directly to the recovery of all of our art in good condition,” Amore said, adding that the museum recognizes the pieces suffered some damage from being pulled from their frames and moved from their climate-controlled home.

Two years ago, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves, but declined to name them, citing the ongoing investigation. Authorities said they believed some of the artwork changed hands through organized crime circles, and moved from Boston to Connecticut and Philadelphia, where the trail went cold.

Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum/AP

"Chez Tortoni" by Manet was one of more than a dozen works of art burglars stole during the heist.

A publicity campaign that was launched by the FBI triggered numerous tips that are still being pursued, according to Kelly.

A witness deemed credible by the FBI claims to have seen one of the paintings, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt’s only seascape, when someone tried to sell it in Philadelphia around 2003, Kelly said.

The FBI’s PowerPoint presentation traces court proceedings, public records, and newspaper accounts to bolster its theory that local criminals with mob ties were behind the heist.

It also focuses on Richard Abath, the then-23-year-old guard who opened the door at 1:24 a.m. for the two men dressed as police officers after they demanded entry to investigate a disturbance. Abath and the other guard on duty were handcuffed, duct-taped, and left in the basement, where they were discovered hours after the robbers fled.

Motion sensors that recorded the thieves’ steps during their 81-minute rampage through the museum indicate they never entered the first-floor gallery where the Manet was stolen, according to Kelly and Amore. Only Abath’s steps, as he made his rounds before the thieves arrived, were picked up there, they said. The sensors also revealed that Abath briefly opened a side door to the museum shortly before he buzzed the thieves in at a different entrance.

Abath could not be reached for comment, but in prior Globe interviews he has said he had nothing to do with the robbery and described himself as a victim. The FBI has questioned him repeatedly and scoured his bank records, according to Abath.

The FBI’s presentation notes that George Reissfelder, who was implicated in the heist by an informant and died of a cocaine overdose in 1991, matched a composite sketch of one of the thieves.

The catch: Reissfelder was 50 at the time of the heist, and the guards estimated one thief was in his late 20s to early 30s and the other was in his 30s. However, Kelly said he doesn’t believe the age estimates were reliable.

Five years ago, Reissfelder’s brother told Amore that he was convinced he saw the “Chez Tortoni” hanging over his brother’s bed in his Quincy apartment. Investigators later discovered that Reissfelder owned a red Dodge Daytona, the same model car that a group of teenagers saw parked by the museum just before the heist, with two men dressed like police officers seated inside.

Handout

Chinese bronze beaker stolen from museum.

Reissfelder’s associate, Carmello Merlino, a Dorchester auto repair shop owner with mob ties, was targeted by the FBI in 1997 after he boasted to two informants that he planned to recover the artwork and collect the reward. Instead, he was caught in an FBI sting and convicted of trying to rob an armored car depot in Easton.

Despite offers of leniency in return for the stolen artwork, Merlino never produced it and died in prison in 2005.

Four years later, the FBI focused on another Merlino associate, Robert Guarente, after his wife told investigators that before his 2004 death he gave several of the stolen paintings to Robert Gentile, a Hartford organized crime figure with ties to mobsters in Boston and Philadelphia.

During a 2012 search of Gentile’s home in Manchester, Conn., agents found a list of the stolen artwork, with their black market value; it was tucked inside a March 1990 Boston Herald trumpeting the theft. They also found a stash of weapons, police hats, handcuffs, drugs, and other items in the house, and an empty Rubbermaid tub buried under the floorboards of a shed in his yard. It tested negative for paint residue linked to the stolen artwork, Kelly said.

Hartford attorney A. Ryan McGuigan, who represents Gentile, said his 78-year-old client does not know anything about the stolen Gardner artwork, and would have struck a deal for leniency and a chance at the reward if he did. Instead, he spent two years in prison for his 2013 federal conviction on gun charges and selling prescription drugs to an FBI informant.

“He wasn’t giving them what they wanted so they squeezed him,” McGuigan said. “It turned out he had nothing all along.”

Stephen Kurkjian, a former Globe reporter and author of “Master Thieves,” a newly released book on the heist, puts forward a different theory about the theft.

Kurkjian writes that former New England mob capo Vincent Ferrara claims that one of his associates, Robert Donati, confessed to him in 1990 that he robbed the Gardner museum, buried the artwork, and planned to use it to try to broker Ferrara’s release from prison. But when Donati was found murdered in the trunk of his car in Revere in 1991, the location of his secret hiding spot died with him.

“Nothing has been solved,” Kurkjian said. “It’s only theory and hard reporting.”

Another theory was chased by Robert K. Wittman, a retired FBI agent who founded the bureau’s National Art Crime Team. He went undercover in 2006 to infiltrate a group that offered to sell the stolen Gardner artwork and claimed it was in the hands of Corsican mobsters.

In the New York Times bestseller, “Priceless,” he co-authored, Wittman describes an elaborate operation, stretching from Miami to Marseille and Spain, that ended with the recovery of paintings stolen from a museum in Nice.

Wittman, who now runs a Pennsylvania-based art security and recovery consulting firm,, said he remains convinced that the Gardner paintings were in Europe in 2007, despite the FBI’s conclusion that they were not.

“If these paintings are still in existence, at some point they will come back,” Wittman said.

Gardner Museum/REUTERS

Vermeer's oil on canvas "The Concert"

Kelly and Amore believe the artwork is close to home, possibly in the Boston area, but said they would never be so fixated on one theory that they are not receptive to new ones.

The FBI believed a tipster’s claim that he spotted Bulger in London in 2002, until the fugitive gangster was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011 and revealed that he had been there for 15 years.

“I think there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting our theory as to who did it and where these paintings may have gone over various times over the last 25 years,” Kelly said. “Maybe we are wrong, but I don’t believe we are. But at the same time it would be foolish not to take any information we get and vet it out.”

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.
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