The ads began popping up on Craigslist six months ago, in London, Venice, and Egypt. A shadowy seller, calling himself Mordokwan, was offering two of the most valuable masterpieces stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
The asking price? A cool $50 million for Vermeer’s “The Concert,” and $5 million for Rembrandt’s only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
There was a small catch. In his listings, Mordokwan said he would never meet. Buyers would just have to trust him that he had the stolen masterpieces and, in “good faith,” send a cashier’s check for the full amount to an address in West Virginia. Then, it would just be a matter of time until the paintings arrived in the mail.
Some were suspicious, however, and notified the FBI and the Gardner Museum about the ads. On Monday, the FBI arrested the man who allegedly posted them, Todd Andrew Desper, 47, on charges of wire fraud and attempted wire fraud.
Desper, a West Virginia man who authorities believe has no connection or access to the paintings, will make an initial appearance in federal court in West Virginia on Tuesday morning, according to the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts. Desper will appear in federal court in Boston on June 9. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.
According to the affidavit, unsealed on Monday, a tipster on Jan. 18 forwarded e-mail correspondence with Desper to Anthony Amore, the museum’s security chief.
The tipster had contacted Desper, posing as a broker for a prospective buyer in Florida, described as an “ex-Russian politician.”
“I [understand] on your end being extra cautious and I do not wish for you to compromise that, in the end I want the sale commission . . . for me it means retirement,” the tipster wrote.
Desper replied that “for several obvious reasons, I do not, nor will I ever meet [sic]. Transaction will have to be done on good faith.”
After receiving the correspondence, Amore created an encrypted e-mail account to write Desper.
“Let’s make a deal,” Amore wrote, according to the affidavit. “I’m in a position to make this work and I’m ready to get down to business. Get back to me asap.”
Desper instructed Amore to send a $5 million check made out to 10tothe7th LLC to a Beckley, W. Va., address. When Amore asked if “The Storm” was the same painting stolen from the Gardner Museum, Desper said, “The one and only,” records show.
Documents in West Virginia indicate that Desper is the sole officer of 10tothe7th, a company located at his residential address, the affidavit stated.
Desper told FBI agents in January that he started the company to raise money for war veterans and abused animals. He refused to tell agents whether he used Craigslist to sell stolen paintings and claimed to have no knowledge of a theft from a Boston museum, the affidavit said.
The West Virginia man was attempting to carry out other scams on Craigslist, authorities said.
He posted other big-ticket items for sale, including “Flash Comics #1, Ashcan Edition” for $2.5 million and a “1799 Draped Bust Dollar” for $250,000, the affidavit said.
In March 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, tied up the two guards, and pulled and slashed treasured works of art from their frames.
They stole 13 pieces, including “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and “The Concert,” along with works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas. The paintings are still missing.