Case of missing paintings unsolved after 25 years
It's been called the biggest art heist in U.S. history. It might be the biggest in the world. But 25 years later, the theft of 13 works from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains unsolved.
The theft has spawned books, rumors and speculation about who was responsible. Those, as well as multiple dead ends.
Yet authorities and museum officials remain hopeful. They note that stolen art almost always gets returned. It just sometimes takes many years.
"Although a quarter-century has passed since the art was stolen, we have always been determined to recover it and we remain optimistic that we will," said Anne Hawley. She is the Gardner's director. She was in charge at the time of the theft.
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as Boston police officers talked their way into the museum. They said they were responding to a call. They overpowered two security guards and bound them with duct tape. Then the thieves spent 81 minutes pilfering 13 works of art. The thefts included masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet.
Authorities say the artwork is worth perhaps as much as a half-billion dollars. Museum officials say it's priceless. That's because it cannot be replaced.
Some of the works, including Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," were cut from their frames. Those frames hang empty in the museum to this day.
"It is our way of remaining hopeful," museum marketing director Kathy Sharpless said.
Museum officials and police remain baffled by the selection of works stolen. It is thought that the three stolen Rembrandts were targeted. But why more valuable pieces were left behind while less valuable works were taken remains a mystery.
The FBI announced two years ago that they think they know the identities of the thieves. Yet the whereabouts of the art remains unclear. No names have been disclosed or arrests made.
With the help of foreign law enforcement agencies, the FBI has chased down thousands of leads around the globe. France, Spain, Britain and Japan are countries that have been considered. But the answer may be closer to home.
Richard DesLauriers is the former agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office. He said two years ago that investigators believe the thieves belonged to a criminal organization. It is based in New England and the mid-Atlantic. The FBI believes the art was taken to Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Later it was offered for sale in Philadelphia.
After that, the trail went cold.
"That announcement did generate some good tips. But no recovery," said Geoff Kelly, a member of the FBI's art crime team. He has worked on the case for more than 12 years. The local angle remains the most hopeful, he said.
In 2012, the FBI searched the property of a Connecticut mobster. The FBI believes the mobster knew something about the heist. The investigators even used ground-penetrating radar. Nothing was found.
The museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of the artwork "in good condition." Art experts have said that for that kind of money, someone will eventually "rat out" the thief.
The government's reward is not monetary. It is offering immunity. That means no criminal prosecution for the thefts, under certain conditions.
The museum is marking the infamous anniversary by launching a virtual tour on its website. It is entitled "Thirteen Works: Explore the Gardner's Stolen Art." The tour includes high-resolution images of the artwork, archival images, the history of the works and how they were acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Critical thinking challenge: Why did the thieves pretend to be policemen?