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Could new technology solve the Gardner heist?

An unidentified man is seen allegedly being allowed inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, against Museum policy, by a security guard, in a still image taken from security video taken March 17, 1990 and released by the FBI August 6, 2015. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

The recent discovery of old surveillance footage that energized the investigation into the 1990 Gardner Museum heist has private investigators and analysts questioning how technological advancements can further be utilized to help solve Boston’s last great mystery.

“Technology is really changing the way this case is being handled,” said Chris Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery Group, which maintains an international database of more than 360,000 stolen, looted, or missing works, including 1,000 from Massachusetts.

Marinello, who has monitored the Gardner investigation, said technological advancements, such as facial recognition, video enhancement, and fingerprint and DNA analysis — and the development of online databases like his own — may be the tools needed to finally solve the world’s greatest unsolved art theft.


The point was crystallized last week when law enforcement officials publicly released never-before-seen video from the museum’s security system. It sparked an Internet frenzy as people sought to enhance the video and identify an unknown man whom a guard had let into the museum 24 hours before the robbery, in violation of security protocol and under questionable circumstances.

Analysts, some with old ties to the Gardner probe, question whether new technology can or has been used to examine pieces of original evidence in the case, such as the duct tape used to tie down the guards on duty that night and the handcuffs placed on them.

“Any of the original items that were seized at the time of the crime could be retested with better technology now, so that could be one area where they could make some progress,” said Brian Kelly, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody and the former head of the public corruption unit in the US attorney’s office, who oversaw the Gardner investigation.

Any strategy to raise public awareness of the artworks, Kelly said, can aid in the investigation, noting it was a public tip that led to the arrest and ultimate conviction in 2013 of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.


“Certainly, keeping it in the news is helpful because it does lead to tips, and at some point they will get lucky,” Kelly said. “They just have to get lucky once.”

Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the Boston office of the FBI, said she could not say whether any of the evidence from the night of the robbery has been tested with new technology, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

She said, however, that authorities received more than 40 tips related to last week’s release of the surveillance footage, and investigators “are working diligently to vet them all.”

The release of the video pumped new vigor into the decades-old investigation, which has long stymied law enforcement officials.

Two men posting as police officers entered the museum just after 1 a.m. on March 18, 1990, saying they were responding to a disturbance. After they tied up the guards, they made off with 13 works, including a Vermeer, a Manet, and three Rembrandts, one of them his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

No one was ever charged, and the museum has offered a $5 million reward for the return of the works of art. US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said she would consider granting immunity to anyone who has the paintings in exchange for their return.

“The issue now is maybe convincing someone to take the reward money that’s on the table,” said Thomas Shamshak, a private investigator and a former police detective and chief in several towns in Massachusetts, who has followed the case.


Recently, attention again turned to an aging Connecticut mobster whom authorities suspect has information about the location of the paintings that he is withholding. Officials said in court records filed last week that reputed Philadelphia Mafia soldier Robert Gentile has lied about the paintings. He claimed to a cooperating witness in 2010 that he had access to two paintings and wanted to sell them, though Gentile has told authorities he did not know the location of the paintings. He failed lie detector tests.

Attention in the past week also turned to former Gardner guard Richard Abath, who let the two police officers into the museum the night of the robbery.

Abath has denied any wrongdoing, but the museum footage released last week shows him letting an unidentified man into the museum the night before the heist — leading authorities to question whether it was a dry run of the robbery. He never disclosed that he let anyone into the museum under such circumstances.

Abath, now in his late 40s and living in Brattleboro, Vt., could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts to get in touch with him. He has told authorities he has no recollection of the encounter and cannot identify the man in the video.

The former guard chronicled the theft in his college theses in 2010 for a creative nonfiction writing program, which was obtained this week by The Boston Globe.


In it, he writes that he was surprised when FBI agents approached him 18 years after the theft, saying they evidently never discounted him as a suspect.

He said at that time that he was considering writing a book because, “I wonder if some detail that I don’t know is important might turn out to be very important.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the company associated with art recovery lawyer Christopher A. Marinello.