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Culture

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art Heist And The Connecticut Connection

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Update: Aug. 7, 3:21 p.m.

The FBI says the two men it suspects robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of $500 million worth of masterpieces in 1990 are dead.

Peter Kowenhoven, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge in Boston, told The Associated Press the thieves are deceased. Kowenhoven declined to identify the suspects.

Two years ago, investigators announced they knew who stole the 13 works — including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, but they refused to elaborate, saying only that the investigation was now focused on recovering the missing artwork.

Update: Aug. 7, 1:40 p.m.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts has released an excerpt of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSw1BsJEBB4" target="_blank">surveillance video from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from March 17, 1990. Law enforcement officials say the video shows an unauthorized visitor entering the museum the night before the theft. The person is seen entering through the same door the thieves used the following night. Law enforcement officials are asking for the public’s help in identifying the man seen in the video.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers walked into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, overwhelmed two security guards, and walked out with 13 valuable pieces of art, including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

For 25 years the FBI, the Boston Police, and many journalists have interviewed suspects and investigated tips in hopes of solving the case. The museum has offered a $5 million reward for the return of all the stolen pieces.

But the art works are still missing. And no one has ever been arrested in the case.

The heist remains the largest art theft in U.S. history. The works stolen are valued at $500 million.

Stephen Kurkjian has investigating the Gardner Museum theft for about 18 years. He started working on the case as a journalist for the Boston Globe. He’s just published a book called Master Thieves. The book examines the people potentially connected with the heist and the FBI’s theory of what happened. Kurkjian says the FBI believes a criminal network that runs from Boston to Maine and even to Hartford is responsible for the theft.

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Credit (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)
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Thieves took "Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” by Rembrandt, which once hung on the wall in the left background and "The Concert," by Vermeer, which once occupied the frame in the right foreground. The empty frames remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

INTERVIEW EXCERPTS:

Your book highlights a broad cast of characters and includes a complicated network of low and high level criminals as well as two rival crime families.

I think that's at the center of the of this perplexing mystery. There were two gangs in the Boston area that knew of the vulnerability of the museum back as far as the late 70s and early 80s. These two gangs went at each other in a war because the control of the Boston underworld had become open with the death of Raymond Patriarca who was the gangland "uberboss" of all of New England. So that opened it up to two gangs, one overseen by a gang leader named Frank Salemme and another one overseen by newer, younger, much more aggressive men that sprung out of the North End of Boston. The FBI looks to the Salemme gang. In my research, I was able to make inroads into the second gang, and there I got the "eureka" moment in which I found out who in that gang knew of the museum's vulnerability and why they had the motive to break in.

You say finding a motive for the robbery really narrows down the field of suspects. Isn't that something that investigators should figure out fairly soon in the investigation?

You would think. But I think it was because the FBI got so overwhelmed with tips and information that came, for the most part if not solely, from fraudsters and con men seeking to get money out of the museum. They had to chase down everyone of these leads. I was told by the FBI lead agent in the case in 2010 that they had yet to have a confirmed proof of life sighting of any of the 13 pieces. And what that means is they have never gotten a photograph of any of the pieces, or a forensic piece of evidence of any of the pieces. That told me that the FBI was working very diligently, but they got a center where they felt the were right on it. So frustrating, but I think it's at the core as to why this case has never been solved.

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Credit (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
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Law enforcement agents search the yard at the home of reputed Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile in Manchester, Connecticut, Thursday, May 10, 2012.

There's some reason to believe that some or all of the art work was hidden for a time in Manchester, Connecticut.

Bobby Gentile is an aging mob associate. The FBI believed he was involved because of the testimony of the widow of his best friend who said that before her husband had passed away in 2004 he had given two or three of the paintings to Bobby Gentile. And Bobby Gentile had hidden them in his home somewhere in the shed in his backyard in Connecticut. When the FBI first approached Bobby Gentile in 2010 he agreed to cooperate, but that stopped in 2012. And then in 2014 the feds sent an undercover agent, an old pal of Bobby Gentile They talked about a crime that the old pal wanted Bobby to get involved in. Bobby fell into the trap. He said, "if you let me into this scheme you've got planned I'll sell you two of the paintings for half a million dollars." In my heart of hearts I don't think Bobby can get us back the paintings, but the feds are not convinced of that.