On This Day — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990) [UPDATE — New NETFLIX Docuseries]

“I have spoken to former IRA members who say it was common knowledge these paintings were probably in hands of the organization.”

Arthur Brand — Dutch investigator and art adviser based in Amsterdam

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (1633)

March 18 2021 — On March 18 1990, two men posing as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, Vermeer’s “The Concert”, and works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas. Despite a $10 million reward and promises of immunity, none of the pieces has been recovered. Thirty years later, nobody has ever been charged with the crime. In 1990, the FBI estimated the value of the haul at $200 million. This estimate was raised to $500 million by 2000. Today, these pieces could be worth US $1 billion. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

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“We wanted to start with a blank slate, not assuming anything, and go from there and see where the evidence led us.”Colin Barnicle

UPDATE (April 9 2021) — The Great Gardner Museum Heist is getting the Netflix docuseries treatment with “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist”, a four-part series, directed by the Barnicle brothers.

Colin Barnicle and his brother, Nick, Boston-area natives long fascinated by the case, began investigating in 2014 and shooting in 2015.

“This Is a Robbery, like the book, lands with detail where the FBI arrived a few years earlier: that the works were stolen by two associates of the local mobster Carmello Merlino. According to this theory, the thieves were George Reissfelder, 51, and Leonard DiMuzio, 49, who frequented a Dorchester auto-body shop with ties to the mafia and both died in 1991, of a cocaine overdose and shooting, respectively.

Merlino was arrested in an FBI sting for attempted robbery of an armored car depot in 1999, and died in prison in 2005. The FBI believes that the works ended up in the possession of Robert Guarente, a convicted bank robber with east coast mafia ties who died in 2004.

The only member of the crowd with likely knowledge of the robbery, David Turner, was arrested along with Merlino in 1999 and released early from prison in 2019 at 52; he declined to participate in the series, according to Barnicle.” [The Guardian]

The series was explicitly intended to raise awareness, particularly of the lesser-known works which could be in possession of someone unaware of their worth – the Rembrandt self-portrait and Degas sketches, for example, could pass to an untrained eye as unassuming family heirlooms.

“I think there’s a possibility that some of small pieces are still out there somewhere on somebody’s wall – they just don’t know they have them because it wasn’t as widely spread as the Vermeer and the few Rembrandts,” Barnicle said.

The FBI has said it determined the works traveled through organized crime networks in Connecticut and Philadelphia, were the last alleged sighting of the Rembrandt seascape was noted in 2003. The trail has been cold since.

This Is a Robbery methodically traces the events of that fateful night from eyewitness encounters, testimony, and interviews before then diving into the ensuing investigation by the FBI to try and decipher A. Who did this, B. How they did it, and C. Where all that art went. It’s a tall order given that the case is still unsolved, but director Colin Barnicle does a fine job of weaving all the intricate theories together with new interviews, taped recordings from the 90s, and clever graphics that try and keep this increasingly complex jigsaw puzzle together.

Indeed, as the series gets deeper into the prevailing theories surrounding who may have taken the art, it gets much more complicated. The show does a nice job of sticking to the most credible theories, buoyed by interviews with key investigators, museum directors, and even accomplished art thieves to provide context for the who, what, and why. But even then things start to feel a bit frayed as you reach the end, and ultimately the series can only present a lineup of possible suspects with arguments for and against why each could be a credible culprit. The truth is, as the series progresses and the years go by, it becomes clear that in all likelihood, this art – including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only seascape – is long gone.

But that doesn’t make the series any less entertaining or compelling, and it’s a fascinating window into the world of art dealing, and why certain organized crime rings may have had motive to keep priceless art laying around. 

The show does a terrific job of using experts to relay the strangeness of the heist – from what was (and wasn’t) stolen to the decision to keep the security guards alive. Strange crimes usually make for the most harebrained theories, but thankfully This Is a Robbery mostly stays in the lane of the credible, and backs up each theory with at least a modicum of evidence.

If you go in looking for the satisfaction of knowing who did it, you may come out the other end dissatisfied. But if you’re the type who can hang with ambiguity and would relish in going down a rabbit hole of your own research after the four hours are up, you’ll no doubt find This Is a Robbery a rewarding watch. [Netflix’s Art Heist Docuseries ‘This Is a Robbery’ Is a Refreshing Change of Pace for the True Crime Genre | Review]

END of UPDATE

“This [$10m] reward demonstrates the commitment of the museum and its board of trustees to the recovery of these important works. We are the only buyer for these works and they belong in their rightful home.”

Steve Kidder — President of the Gardner museum’s board (January 2018)

UPDATE (March 18 2020) — Whitey Bulger was transferred from the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City to United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, in West Virginia on October 29, 2018.

At 8:20 a.m. on October 30, the 89-year-old Bulger was found unresponsive in the prison.

Flashback — On November 14 2013, Whitey Bulger was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment, plus five years.

Obviously, two lifetimes will go by quickly if a FBI informant is dropped in a prison filled with dangerous criminals working for the mafia.

Whoever decided to transfer Bulger to the notoriously violent Hazelton facility knew that he would not survive very long.

So, why was he sentenced to death? Allow me to suggest two possibilities.

The first is related to the dark past of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  The second involves the Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist.

Indeed, there is a possibility that Whitey Bulger offered the paintings to the IRA as ‘compensation’ for a shipment of weapons intercepted by the Irish navy a few years earlier.

However, after his arrest, Bulger did not volunteer information about the Gardner heist that might have brought a more lenient sentence and a more comfortable cell.

PS — The 2013 television drama The Blacklist starring James Spader [Raymond Reddington] about a career criminal who turns himself in to work with the FBI on his own terms was inspired by Bulger’s story.

END of UPDATE

“In This World There Are No Sides — Only Players.”

Raymond Reddington — The Blacklist

Arthur Brand, a Dutch investigator and art adviser based in Amsterdam, claims the art is in Ireland.

“The FBI have been in Ireland many times because they’ve had strong leads for the art being in hands of the Irish Republican Army, but some people think they’re still in America,” said Brand.

“Now they’re focusing on Robert Gentile, a mafia member who is 80 years old who was offered jail-free if he offered the paintings back.

Does the FBI really think he wouldn’t make a deal if he knew anything? Gentile said he didn’t know where the art is, but the FBI is still focusing on that man.”

“I have spoken to former IRA members who say it was common knowledge these paintings were probably in hands of the organization,” he said.

“One said, ‘I heard we had them.’”

“I am independent and I can make sure if someone comes forward, they remain anonymous, but nobody has come forward,” said Brand.

“It’s complicated. It’s a strange case.”

The Blacklist [S1:E6 — Gina Zanetakos (No. 152)]

“The blues. The blues look green and gray. The gaping maw of the ocean. It is mesmerizing. I don’t know why I’m doing this. This painting should be hanging in Boston.”

Raymond Reddington — The Blacklist

Loss of DNA Evidence

In 2010, the FBI announced that some evidence from the original crime scene had been sent to the FBI’s Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for retesting with the hope of finding new DNA evidence to identify the culprits of the theft.

In June 2017, The Boston Globe reported that some of the crime scene evidence collected by the FBI was missing and that, even after an exhaustive search, they were unable to locate the handcuffs and duct tape that were used to immobilize the museum’s two security guards.

The handcuffs and duct tape could have contained traces of DNA material from the thieves. [Wikipedia]

The Thrilling Gardner Museum Heist — BuzzFeed

REFERENCES

Will Boston’s $500m art heist ever be solved? — Guardian

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On This Day — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990)

On This Day — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990) [2019]

30 Years Ago — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990)

On This Day — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990)

On This Day — The Great Gardner Museum Heist (March 18 1990) [UPDATE — New NETFLIX Docuseries]

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