Metro

$10m reward for stolen Gardner museum artwork set to expire at end of 2017

Boston-6/12/96- Rembrandt's, 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee', is just a framed section of fabric wall covering as theses two visitors to the Gardner Museum observed. This was one of the paintings stolen in a mysterious heist that is yet unsolved. Library Tag 12201999 Metro
John Tlumacki/Globe staff
Rembrandt's, 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee', is just a framed section of fabric.

The clock is ticking on a $10 million reward involving one of Boston’s greatest mysteries.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum doubled its reward to $10 million in May for information leading to the safe recovery of its priceless artwork but set a hard deadline: Anyone seeking to collect the windfall had to come forward by the end of this year.

Now, with the deadline looming, museum officials are hoping someone comes forward before the reward reverts back to $5 million on Jan. 1.

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“This is a check that the museum will be delighted to write,” Kathy Sharpless, a spokeswoman for the Gardner Museum, said Friday. “We want our paintings back. We want them back now.”

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The brazen heist — the largest property crime in US history — occurred in the early-morning hours of March 18, 1990. Two thieves disguised as police officers claimed to be investigating a disturbance when they showed up at the museum’s side door on Palace Road in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.

They were buzzed inside, where they tied up the two security guards on duty and spent 81 minutes slashing and pulling masterpieces from their frames. They fled with 13 items, worth an estimated $500 million, including Vermeer’s “The Concert”; three Rembrandts, including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; and works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas.

Twenty-seven years later, the FBI, the US attorney’s office, and the museum say efforts to find the stolen works remain a priority. No one has ever been charged in the crime, and none of the artwork has been recovered. The statute of limitations on the theft expired years ago, but authorities could still bring criminal charges for hiding or transporting the stolen artwork.

Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office, said Friday that the $10 million shows how deeply committed the museum is to recovering the stolen artwork.

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“We at the FBI encourage anyone with information about the location of the missing masterpieces to contact us, the museum, or a third party if you wish to remain anonymous, as soon as possible,” Setera said. “Rest assured, our investigation remains active and ongoing. We continue to receive tips on a regular basis and we pursue every tip we receive because we’re equally committed to making sure the stolen art is returned to its rightful place.”

When announcing its $10 million reward with an expiration date, museum officials said they hoped it would send an urgent message to anyone withholding information about the artwork’s whereabouts and dispel any doubts about their intention to pay it.

Dozens of people called offering tips or theories following the announcement, including some who provided “really strong information that was worth following up,” said Anthony Amore, who took over as the museum’s security director 12 years ago and is working with the FBI and federal prosecutors on the investigation. Two callers provided information about people who are suspected of being involved in the heist, Amore said. However, investigators remain stymied in their efforts to locate the stolen artwork.

Amore said he remains hopeful that someone will come forward in the next two weeks with crucial information. “One could envision a scenario where someone has been on the fence for years about coming forward and might wait until the last minute,” Amore said.

If no one comes forward before the new year, Amore said, the museum will probably re-examine its approach, but “right now all of our efforts are focused on being prepared for a call that may come in the next couple of weeks.”

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The $10 million reward, financed by the museum’s trustees, will be paid to anyone who provides information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 stolen pieces, in good condition.

Anyone — except the thieves themselves — is eligible for the reward, Amore said.

“I think it’s important for us to differentiate between a ransom and a reward,” Amore said. “I think paying the thieves would be a ransom.”

However, relatives of the thieves could collect the reward if they provide information that leads to the recovery of the stolen artwork, according to Amore.

“You are referring to innocent parties,” Amore said.

If someone provides information that leads to the recovery of some of the stolen artwork, they can collect a portion of the reward.

Four years ago, the FBI announced that it was confident it had identified the thieves — two local criminals who have since died — and determined that the stolen artwork traveled through organized crime circles from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold around 2003.

One theory, outlined by the FBI a couple of years ago, is that George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, who both died in 1991, were involved in the heist. Reissfelder, 51, of Quincy, died of a cocaine overdose. DiMuzio, 43, of Rockland, was found shot to death in East Boston.

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 widow 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.

Last year, a federal prosecutor alleged that Gentile offered to sell some of the paintings to an undercover FBI agent in 2015, but the deal collapsed and Gentile was arrested on unrelated gun charges.

Gentile, 81, has vehemently denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of the stolen artwork, even though he is facing prison time and could walk free if he cooperated, according to his lawyer.

Gentile pleaded guilty to federal gun charges and was to be sentenced in September, but the proceedings have been postponed because of questions about his mental competency.

Asked about the $10 million reward that is set to expire by year’s end, Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, quipped, “There goes my Christmas bonus.”

McGuigan said, “I truly believe that the reward could be $100 million and my client would not be providing any more information than he already has, simply because he doesn’t have any more information.”

As for why nobody has come forward for the $10 million reward, McGuigan said that after interviewing one of Reissfelder’s former cellmates, he became convinced that Reissfelder stashed the artwork before he died “and tragically the whereabouts of the paintings died with him.”

Amore said he has considered the possibility that the artwork was hidden by someone who has since died, but he remains convinced that someone has information that could lead to its recovery.

“We’re not looking for every armchair detective in Boston to send their theory,” Amore said. “It’s been 27 years, and we’ve heard all the theories. Theories don’t lead to recovery. We’re looking for facts.”

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com.