Conversation: Still Unsolved, Gardner Heist Remains Largest Art Theft in History

BY Ray Suarez  March 19, 2010 at 3:46 PM EDT

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Twenty years ago this week, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the site of the biggest art heist in history. Two men dressed as police officers broke into the Boston art museum and stole 13 masterpieces, including five Degas, three Rembrandts and one Vermeer. The works are worth an estimated $500 million.

“The people who went into that museum were expert thieves,” Ulrich Boser, author of “The Gardner Heist,” told me. “At the same time, I don’t think that they knew much about art. They cut two of the Rembrandts out of their frames. If they had known anything about art, if they had taken a drawing class in high school, they would know that that could potentially destroy these works forever.”

I spoke to Boser, who has been following recent developments in the case, to see if authorities are any closer to catching the thieves:

Transcript is after the jump.

Editor’s note: Read about the FBI’s Art Theft Program and see details about the Gardner heist here.

 
 
JEFFREY BROWN: Ulrich Boser is the author of “The Gardner Heist” and joins me now. He’s in Boston for the anniversary. Welcome to you.

ULRICH BOSER: Thanks so much for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, why has this remained a mystery for 20 years? Why do you think?

ULRICH BOSER: Well, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. There have been countless leads, countless tips. The museum has a $5 million reward for these paintings. That’s the largest reward every offered by a private institution. To be quite honest, my family could have lived probably in better economic times just off of the interest of that amount of money, so this case remains enduring and everyone wants these paintings to be returned.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so for those who don’t remember it, tell us what is known about that night at the Gardner on March 18, 1990.

ULRICH BOSER: Shortly after midnight, two men approached the side entrance of the museum. They were thieves and they were dressed as police officers and they had the full uniforms: hats, badges, even those little pins that police officers wear in their lapels. They told the night guard that they were investigating a disturbance and they were buzzed inside. They stepped into one of the most beautifully romantic museums in the world and they went up to the second floor and they looted the museum for over an hour. They stole five Degas, three Rembrandts and one Vermeer. Today those paintings are believed to be worth as much as $500 million. That’s makes this the largest art heist in history; it also quite frankly makes this the biggest burglary in America memory.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know what, I remember from the beginning that there was always a lot of questions and sort of mystery about what they took and what they didn’t take. They took those ones you’ve mentioned; they also ignored a lot of other very expensive and famous works and took some lesser pieces.

ULRICH BOSER: That’s right. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has thousands of works of art, including works by Botticelli, Velasquez, Rubens. She purchased arguably the finest example of Italian renaissance painting in the world: Titan’s “Europa.” The thieves did not steal those items; instead they stole some, relatively speaking, some knickknacks. They stole the finial from the top of a Napoleonic flag, and if you go on to E-Bay and you punch in “finial bronze eagle,” you can see those selling for about $10. They stole a Chinese Qu, even though there were far more valuable Chinese artifacts in that museum. Now the Gardner Museum says, and appropriately, that the museum is a work of art in its entirety because Isabella Stewart Gardner was very exacting the way she wanted it to be built. She had the main staircase put up and taken down again, and then in her will she wrote that nothing should ever be moved. So when you think about the work, the museum as this performance art, even the loss of these smaller items is deeply saddening. At the same time, when you think about what were these thieves thinking when they were in the museum for over an hour when the average robbery takes 10 minutes, why did they steal these items and it’s just a question mark.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what were they thinking, and of course, the bigger question is the who done it, the who were they? A lot of different theories over the years, you’ve tracked them down, you’ve come up with one of your own. Tell us a little bit about the different theories, different characters behind this and what you’ve come up with.

ULRICH BOSER: So the name that was on investigators lips when they arrived at the museum the morning after the heist, the first person that popped into everyone’s mind was Myles Connor. He was a Mayflower descendent, he was a member of Mensa, he headed a band called Myles Conner and the Wild Ones that played with Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys, and he was a prolific art thief. He had stolen Japanese statutes; had stolen Colonial-era grandfather clocks; stolen old master paintings; he robbed the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.; he robbed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. When police raided his house, it took a number of police vans just to take away all the loot. The problem with the Myles Connor lead or theory if you will is quite frankly he was in prison at the time at the heist occurred. So now today Myles says that a number of his associates committed this crime. His account is a little bit shaky; he names one person specifically who is a 350-pound underemployed auto mechanic who seems kind of unlikely to have masterminded a case like this. And Myles has had, as we know, 20 years to return the art. It just came out here in Boston that he was offered yet another immunity deal recently and hasn’t been able to provide any information to bring these works back. Now in a case like this you can’t ever cross anyone off the list and certainly can’t cross off someone like Myles who is this infamous art thief. But at the same time, as I said, he’s had plenty of time to provide information that might lead to the return of these paintings and he hasn’t been able to do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were also looks over the years at mob ties in Boston; I mean I remember the “Whitey” Bulger correct?

ULRICH BOSER: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you came up with another mobster named David Turner?

ULRICH BOSER: That’s correct. I believe that David Turner is going to go down into the history textbooks of New England alongside “Whitey” Bulger. He’s believed to have helped run a million dollar cocaine ring; he’s believed to have killed as many as a half a dozen people; he’s believed to have robbed Bull and Finch bar, which was the inspiration for the TV show “Cheers.” I spoke to a witness who saw the thieves before they went into the museum that night and he gave this very specific description of the thieves. He said he looked he had “Asian eyes,” as if had one Asian and one Caucasian parent and David Turner fits that description. David Turner’s underworld crime boss, a guy name Carmelo Merlino, twice tried to return the paintings. And when I went to David Turner and I said, “Look, you know there is a fair amount of evidence that you might be one of the thieves,” he denied having any role in the heist. But then he began to sort of boast, he said I should put his picture on the cover of my book. The thing though that I want to be clear about is, you know, this is a theory, I think there is good evidence behind it, but until these works come back, it’s just going to be a theory.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now what about that? I mean, what’s the theory on why the theft? I mean, something like this, it’s obviously hard to sell works like this, so what’s the theory on whoever did it, why they would do it and what they were planning to do with the works?

ULRICH BOSER: Trying to figure out the motivation of people I’m not a 100 percent sure who they are and why exactly they rob that museum is just speculation. I think what we can say is that the people who went into that museum were expert thieves, that they were criminals, they were career criminals. They seemed to be quite proficient at handling handcuffs; they are actually at little more difficult than the TV shows portray. They also did not yell or scream at the guards in the way that a first timer might. They seemed also quite confident. They stayed in the museum for over an hour. They knew that they had run of that museum for the night. At the same, I don’t think that they knew much about art; they cut two of the Rembrandts out of their frame. If they had known anything about art, if they had taken a drawing class in high school, they would know that could potentially destroy these works forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, I understand now that the police, the authorities, are making a new push, I guess look for new DNA samples, there is more publicity around this obviously, but the statute of limitations at the same is run out, so what is the situation with the investigation and with the authorities?

ULRICH BOSER: The authorities still continue to run down leads. The FBI has an investigator, Jeff Kelly, who still runs down leads. The Gardner Museum has a fantastic investigator, Anthony Morey, who continues to work the case very hard, and the U.S. attorney here in Boston has come forward and said, at this particular point in time, 20 years later, we are really just looking for the art; we are looking for the art; we’re not looking to put someone in jail; we’re not looking for a prosecution. It would be possible, and it gets into some legal details and perhaps even new legal ground about someone being prosecuted for this case — there is some potential for that — but generally speaking, the key message here that law enforcement has tried to push out to the public is, we just want these paintings back, no tip is too small. I continue to collect tips and leads as well, because in a case like this we know that the public is going to be key. We know that someone somewhere knows where these paintings are, we know that someone somewhere knows who robbed this museum and we need people to come forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think? Do you expect it will ever be solved?

ULRICH BOSER: I do think it will be solved. In art theft hopes springs eternal for a very good reason. It often takes years, decades, centuries for works to come back. We see one example in the 1860s: Union soldiers stole the Bill of Rights out of the capitol in North Carolina, and it took 140 years for that artifact to come back. It popped up in the art underworld a few times until the FBI returned it in sting. And I think that the thieves who robbed this museum saw these artworks as something valuable in the same way that they wouldn’t burn a pile or a briefcase full of cash, I think that they would take some steps to keep these paintings in good condition, but those are hopeful remarks because I do believe these paintings are going to come home, but I of course don’t know where these paintings are today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the meantime as you’ve said the frames hang at the museum without the paintings.

ULRICH BOSER: Exactly. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will was very specific. Nothing in her museum could ever be changed, not the Michelangelo prints, not the locket of Robert Browning’s hair. Today if you go up to the second floor the frames hang there, they look empty and lifeless, they look tragic really, but I think that those frames are simply waiting, waiting for these masterpieces to come back.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Fascinating story. It’s told in “The Gardner Heist.” Ulrich Boser, thanks for talking to us.

ULRICH BOSER: Thank you.