A $5 million reward for masterworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a quarter century ago has failed to lead to their recovery, prompting authorities Tuesday to announce a new offer: $100,000 for the return of one of the least valuable items, a bronze eagle finial.
The reward far exceeds the value of the 10-inch-high gilded eagle, which was swiped from the top of a pole supporting a silk Napoleonic flag. It was taken along with 12 other pieces valued at $500 million, including masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet, in what remains the world’s largest art heist and one of Boston’s most baffling crime mysteries.
Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director, said during a brief telephone interview that authorities decided to focus on the finial because “it’s probably the least known to the public and there is the possibility that someone who might have it does not realize its importance.”
He added that the finial is distinctive and easy to identify by the museum.
Offered for information leading directly to the finial’s recovery, the $100,000 reward is in addition to the $5 million reward the museum is offering for the return of all the stolen artwork in good condition.
Amore said the museum is promising confidentiality to anyone who provides information about the finial, and those seeking anonymity could enlist a lawyer to approach authorities on their behalf.
“Our goal has been and always will be the recovery of the art,” Amore said.
As to whether the finial could lead to all of the stolen works, Amore said, “We’re always hoping for a crack in the case.”
FBI Special Agent Geoff Kelly, who has spearheaded the Gardner heist investigation for a dozen years, said, “The FBI is extremely supportive of the museum’s decision to offer this new reward for the finial, which continues to be one of the least-recognized pieces that was stolen. We encourage anyone with information to contact the museum directly.”
Amore can be reached at 617-278-5114 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. The US attorney’s office has said it would consider granting immunity to anyone, including the thieves, if they orchestrate the return of the artwork.
Two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the museum on the Fenway in Boston during the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, tied up the two guards, and pulled masterworks from their frames. The stolen pieces include three Rembrandts — including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” — plus a Vermeer, a Manet, a Flinck, five sketches by Degas, and a Chinese bronze beaker from the Shang dynasty.
The thieves attempted to steal the Napoleonic flag from a glass frame, but after removing some screws, abandoned that plan and stole the finial instead, according to authorities. The flag was of the First Regiment of Grenadiers of Foot of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, dating to 1813-1814.
The thieves may have mistakenly believed the finial was gold, museum officials said. “I think it’s possible it was taken as a trophy piece,’’ Amore said.
The new reward comes a month after a federal prosecutor alleged that Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile recently boasted to an undercover FBI agent that he had two of the stolen Gardner paintings and would sell them for $500,000.
When pressed by the agent about why he did not try to collect the $5 million reward, Gentile said he feared authorities were “going to come after him anyway” and he would never get the reward, Assistant US Attorney John Durham said during a hearing in US District Court in Hartford in April.
Gentile, 79, of Manchester, Conn., never produced the paintings and was arrested in April on charges of selling a loaded gun while on probation for an earlier offense. He was sent back to prison to serve another two years on that prior charge and is awaiting trial on the gun charge. His lawyer, A.Ryan McGuigan, has said that Gentile does not know where the stolen paintings are.
Two years ago, the FBI said it was confident it had identified the museum thieves but declined to name them, citing the ongoing investigation.
FBI officials 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.Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.