fb-pixel Skip to main content

A West Virginia man Thursday pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with an online ruse where he falsely offered to sell paintings that were stolen in the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990.

Todd Andrew Desper had no access to nor information about the stolen art, according to federal prosecutors.

Desper, 48, pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of wire fraud and attempted wire fraud in federal court in Boston, according to a statement from the US attorney’s office in Boston.

He is scheduled to be sentenced May 15.

Using the moniker “Mordokwan,” Desper sought out foreign buyers for “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” which is Rembrandt’s only known seascape, and Vermeer’s “The Concert” on Craigslist in a number of foreign locales, including London and Venice. He was trying to target foreign art buyers with the sham, authorities said.

Advertisement



For “The Concert,” his asking price was $50 million. He was hawking “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” for considerably less — $5 million.

Thirteen pieces were stolen from the Gardner Museum, located in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, on March 18, 1990. According to the museum, the pilfered art, which includes works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas, is worth $500 million. Investigators have called the heist the largest art theft in history.

In Desper’s scheme, interested art buyers were directed to create an encrypted e-mail account to communicate with him, according to the attorney’s office.

People looking to help in the recovery of the stolen artwork and those seeking to collect a multimillion-dollar reward from the museum notified authorities of Desper’s ploy, federal prosecutors said. The museum has offered a $10 million reward for information that leads to the recovery of the works.

Federal authorities directed Gardner’s security director to engage in encrypted communications with Desper. The idea was to determine whether he had access to the stolen art, according to the attorney’s office. Investigators found he did not.

Advertisement



According to authorities, Desper told the museum security director to send a $5 million check to a West Virginia location. In return for that money, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” would be sent, hidden behind another painting, federal prosecutors said.

The FBI arrested Desper in West Virginia in May 2017. He was charged in a criminal complaint.

Desper could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine, according to the attorney’s office.

Attempts to reach Desper’s attorney, Jamiel Allen, were not successful Thursday evening.


Shelley Murphy and Travis Andersen of Globe Staff contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.