Metro

Six theories behind the stolen Gardner Museum paintings

An empty frame where Rembrandt's “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

An empty frame where Rembrandt's “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Twenty-seven years after two thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the guards and fled with masterpieces worth an estimated $500 milion, it remains the world’s largest art heist and one of Boston’s most baffling mysteries.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/AP

"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Rembrandt, one of more than a dozen works of art stolen by burglars in the early hours of March 18, 1990, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

For 81 minutes during the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, the thieves pulled and slashed treasured works from their frames. They stole 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; Vermeer’s “The Concert”; and works by Flinck, Manet and Degas.

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In a puzzling twist, they walked by more valuable pieces, yet swiped an ancient Chinese vase and a bronze finial eagle from atop a Napoleonic flag.

None of the works have ever been recovered, despite the offer of a $5 million reward for information leading to their safe return and promises of immunity. And nobody has ever been charged with the crime. The FBI announced two years ago that it was confident it had identified the thieves -- two local criminals who died shortly after the heist -- but declined to name them.

The FBI said it believed the artwork was moved through organized crime circles to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold around 2003.

The investigation remains active and ongoing, according to Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office, who urged anyone with information about the whereabouts of the missing works to contact the FBI, the museum, or a third party.

“We have determined that in the years since the theft, the art was transported to the Connecticut and Philadelphia regions, but we haven’t been able to identify where the art is right now,” Setera said.

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Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director, said he remains hopeful that the artwork will be returned.

“We are still receiving tips and we really hope the public will send us what they know,” Amore said. “What we’re hoping for are facts, as opposed to theories.”

The heist has generated countless theories, involving a dizzying array of suspects, from Irish gunrunners and Corsican mobsters to a Hollywood screenwriter and petty thieves.

Here are some of the most intriguing theories considered by investigators over the years:

The Merlino crew:

The FBI has focused heavily in recent years on the theory that local criminals with mob ties were behind the heist, and said it believes that the two thieves who entered the museum died a short time later. The suspects frequented a Dorchester repair shop operated by Carmello Merlino, a mob associate who boasted to two informants that he planned to recover the artwork and collect the reward. Instead, he was caught in an FBI sting in 1999 and convicted of trying to rob an armored car depot. Despite offers of leniency in return for the stolen artwork, Merlino never produced it and died in prison in 2005.

The theory, outlined by the FBI in a PowerPoint presentation a couple of years ago, is that Merlino’s associates, George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, who both died in 1991, were involved in the theft, along with David Turner and possibly others. Reissfelder, 51, of Quincy, died of a cocaine overdose. DiMuzio, 43, of Rockland, was found shot to death in East Boston. Turner, 49, of Braintree, was convicted in the armored car robbery case with Merlino and is scheduled to be released from prison in 2025.

The FBI believes the stolen artwork ended up in the hands of Robert “Unc” Guarente, a convicted bank robber with ties to the Mafia in Boston and Philadelphia, who died in 2004.

In 2010, Guarente’s wife, Elene, told the FBI that shortly before her husband’s death, he gave two of the stolen paintings to a Connecticut mobster, Robert Gentile, during a rendezvous in Maine, according to authorities.

Eighty-year-old Gentile, who is in failing health and currently in jail awaiting trial on federal gun charges, was ensnared in two FBI stings and promised leniency in exchange for the stolen artwork. He insists he knows nothing about the stolen artwork. But authorities allege that he offered to sell the paintings several years ago for $500,000 each to an undercover FBI agent.

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An inside job?

Richard E. Abath, the 23-year-old night watchman who buzzed the door to let the thieves inside, has said he believed their claim that they were police officers, investigating a disturbance. He said he knew there were St. Patrick’s Day parties in the neighborhood and thought pranksters could have climbed the iron fence and gotten onto the museum’s property.

Once inside, the thieves handcuffed and duct-taped Abath and the other guard on duty and left them in the basement while they robbed the museum.

Abath steadfastly maintains that he played no role in the heist and said he felt honored to be guarding the museum’s priceless art. But he told The Globe in 2013 that he had been told directly by a federal investigator several years before, “You know, we’ve never been able to eliminate you as a suspect.”

His actions the night of the theft and his lifestyle at the time have raised questions. He was a music school dropout and a member of a rock band. He acknowledged in prior Globe interviews that he often showed up at work drunk or stoned, and, in a major security breach, ushered a small group of friends into the museum after hours for a New Year’s Eve party.

Authorities have said the museum’s security protocol prohibited entry of unauthorized personnel, including police, but Abath said he was unaware of that. When the purported officers ordered Abath to step away from the back of the security desk, he complied — removing himself from the museum’s only emergency alarm to the outside world. Abath said he followed orders to avoid being arrested, because he had tickets to attend a Grateful Dead concert later that day in Hartford.

Motion sensors that recorded the thieves’ steps as they moved through the museum indicate they never entered the first-floor gallery where Manet’s Chez Tortoni was stolen, according to the FBI 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 the side door to the museum on Palace Road shortly before he buzzed the thieves in at the same entrance.

Two years ago, federal authorities released a six-minute video taken by the museum’s security system, which shows Abath allowing a man identified by investigators as an “unauthorized visitor” into the museum the night before it was robbed. The man, who has not been identified, spoke to Abath for several minutes at the security desk before leaving. Law enforcement officials said the video raises questions about whether the man was conducting a dry run for the robbery, which occurred just over 24 hours later. When confronted by authorities about the video a couple of years ago, Abath said he didn’t recognize the man and had no recollection of the encounter, according to those familiar with the investigation. Abath has declined to comment on the video.

Globe Staff/File

California screenwriter

Brian McDevitt had relocated from Boston to the Hollywood Hills, where he was working as a screenwriter, when his past came back to haunt him. The FBI eyed him as a possible suspect in the Gardner heist in the early 1990s because he was involved in a bungled art robbery in New York a decade earlier that had striking similarities.

McDevitt, a Swampscott native, and an accomplice hijacked a Federal Express truck in 1980 and knocked out the driver with ether. Dressed in Federal Express uniforms and carrying duct tape to bind museum employees and tools to cut paintings from their frames, the pair planned to rob the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.

The plan was foiled when they got stuck in traffic and arrived at the museum shortly after it closed. They were later identified by the Federal Express driver and confessed. McDevitt, who was 20 at the time, served a few months in jail for the attempted robbery.

McDevitt was living in a Beacon Hill apartment when the two thieves dressed as police officers entered the Gardner museum, tied the two guards up with duct tape, and cut some of the masterpieces from their frames. He was interviewed by the FBI a couple of times in 1992, then questioned before a federal grand jury in Boston the following year. At the time, his lawyer told the Globe that McDevitt knows “absolutely nothing” about the Gardner heist and couldn’t provide any information that would help investigators.

McDevitt died in Colombia in 2004. He was 43.

The Myles Connor and William Youngworth saga

It looked like the breakthrough investigators had been waiting for. On Aug. 27, 1997, under a front-page headline that screamed “We’ve Seen It!” The Boston Herald wrote that reporter Tom Mashberg had been shown Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

“Under the soft glow of a flashlight, the painting was delicately pulled out and unfurled by the informant and shown to a reporter during the predawn hours of Aug. 18,” the article said.

Although Mashberg later said he had apparently been shown a replica, the article sparked months of negotiations between federal authorities and William P. Youngworth Jr., the informant, in an effort to turn the alleged sighting in a Brooklyn warehouse into a recovery of all the missing artwork.

Youngworth, a Brighton antiques dealer, sought several concessions: the $5 million reward; immunity from any prosecution related to the theft; the dismissal of state criminal charges pending against him; and the release of his friend Myles Connor Jr., a notorious art thief from Milton then serving a 10-year prison term on federal drug charges.

Connor was in prison at the time of the heist, but investigators had long speculated he was cunning enough to get his hands on the stolen artwork.

US Attorney Donald K. Stern demanded that Youngworth provide “credible and concrete evidence” that he could deliver the stolen artwork if his demands were met. Youngworth produced a vial of paint fragments that he said were from one of the stolen Rembrandts.

In December 1997, Stern and the FBI announced that the fragments were not from a Rembrandt and the deal fell apart.

Yet, in an intriguing twist, an analysis of the fragments done years later indicated they were consistent with paint used by other 17th century Dutch artists, including Vermeer, whose masterpiece, The Concert, was another of the paintings stolen from the Gardner.

Youngworth, now living in western Massachusetts, for years has rejected requests for interviews about the saga to recover the Gardner artwork. Mashberg said he now believes that whatever Youngworth showed him for a few seconds in the soft glow of a flashlight was not Rembrandt’s, “The Storm” but a replica.

Why? Because the priceless seascape, before the theft, had been covered with protective coating to help preserve it, which would have made it impossible to roll up.

"Chez Tortoni" by Manet.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/AP

"Chez Tortoni" by Manet.

Notorious South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger

The Gardner heist happened at a time when Bulger was Boston’s preeminent gangster, working covertly as an FBI informant. The South Boston crime boss oversaw a sprawling criminal enterprise that rivaled the Mafia and there was widespread speculation that even if he didn’t have a hand in the heist, he likely knew who did. But the FBI and US Attorney’s office said there’s no evidence linking him to the crime.

One of Bulger’s closest associates told the Globe during a 2010 interview that Bulger and his sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, were not involved in the theft, but made their own unsuccessful search for the artwork.

“He was trying to find out who did do it,” said Kevin Weeks, adding that Bulger wanted the paintings to use in the future as a “get out of jail free card.”

When Bulger was captured in Santa Monica, Calif. in 2011 after more than 16 years on the run, the FBI found $822,000 in cash and 30 guns stuffed in the walls of his apartment. There was never a whiff about the stolen artwork, and Bulger is now serving a life sentence for 11 murders.

Robert Donati and Mafia capo Vincent Ferrara

Once one of Boston’s most feared Mafia capos, Vincent Ferrara is at the center of another theory on why the Gardner theft took place – to spring him from federal prison.

According to a person familiar with the account, Ferrara’s close associate, Robert Donati, visited him twice in prison shortly after the Gardner heist and confessed that he had stolen the artwork and planned to use it as a bargaining chip to win Ferrara’s release.

However, Donati said he was worried about the intense FBI manhunt for the thieves. He said he was going to hide the stolen treasures and lay low for a while before reaching out to negotiate an exchange for Ferrara’s freedom.

Donati’s death came before any overture was made, according to authorities. His body was found in September 1991, stuffed in the trunk of his white Cadillac, parked on a street about a half-mile from his Revere home. He he had been viciously beaten and stabbed.

The theory involving Ferrara, who was released from prison in 2005, is not the only time Donati’s name has surfaced as a possible suspect.

Myles Connor Jr., the renowned art thief, says he and Donati often talked about flaws they perceived in the Gardner museum’s security system and would climb trees around the perimeter of the museum, to try to figure out a possible robbery scheme. One time he said they cased the museum and he told Donati he wanted the Chinese vase, the same one that was stolen in 1990.

In his 2009 biography, “The Art of The Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller and Prodigal Son,” Connors wrote that an old friend, David Houghton, visited him in federal prison in California after the heist and told him that Donati was one of the thieves.

But, Houghton, who died of a heart attack the year after the heist, said Donati planned to use the stolen masterworks to bargain for Connor’s release from prison.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at stephenkurkjian@gmail.com.
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