One of the highest profile art thefts in the history of crime could be on the verge of a breakthrough, or so says the Boston Globe in an article today. The case refers to the theft of 13 pieces of artwork stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston over twenty years ago. The museum is the home to an internationally important art collection. It includes significant examples of old master painting, Asian and turn of the century Modernism. Gardner was a woman of exceptional taste and style. Her dream of building a museum to house the impressive collection of works, collected during and after her husband, John L. Gardner’s death in 1898, was realized despite many obsticals. Isabella Gardner died in 1924, her will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including the charge that her collection be permanently exhibited “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever” according to her aesthetic vision and intent. The collection has been carefully displayed with more than 2,500 objects–paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, architectural elements, drawings, silver, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, photographs and letters from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic world, and 19th-century France and America. Among the names represented in the galleries are Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent, as well as the first Matisse in an American collection. Artworks included in the museum’s collection are Titian’s The Rape of Europa, John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo and Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 23, Cellini’s Bindo Altoviti, and Piero della Francesca’s Hercules.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the museum and stole thirteen works of art from its galleries. The stolen artworks included The Concert by Vermeer (one of only 34 known works by Vermeer in the world), three works by Rembrandt including (the artist’s only known seascape,The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and a Rembrandt Self-Portrait, five drawings by Degas, Chez Tortoni by Manet a landscape painting formerly attributed to Rembrandt, and several other valuable objects were taken. The stolen artworks have never been found. However, the investigation remains an open as an active case and condidered a top priority of the FBI Art Recovery Squad. Some media estimates have put the value of the stolen artworks at as much as $500 million, making the theft the largest single property theft in recorded history. An offer of a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork remains standing.
The opportunity of finding the works came to a standstill many years ago but with the arrest last week of James Bulger a serial criminal from the Boston area prospects of new leads in the case have never been better. Bulger will undoubtedly be questioned about the 1990 robbery as part of his interigation. If Bulger has information regarding the heist, he may reveal it in order to cut his sentence. James Whitney Bulger is now 81 and time is running out for this dangerous, ruthless criminal. He will likely spend his last remaining years behind bars.
Former FBI agent John Connolly, who handled Bulger as an FBI informant, has stated to a reporter that after leaving the agency’s Boston office in 1990, his former bosses asked him to approach Bulger about the Gardner crime. Connolly said that Bulger told him that he did not know who had engineered the theft or where the artwork had been taken. This may very well turn out to have been false information.
A conference held on the 20th anniversary of the Gardner theft, organized by the International Foundation for Art Research, revealed that federal investigators had no more information linking Bulger to the case. However, rumours of a Bulger connection persists, and his contacts in Boston at the time of the robbery still point to his involvement as a potential suspect. Bulger’s past ties him to IRA supporters which may or may not have a link to the case. If Bulger cooperates with investigators, his information may prove extremely relevant. Not a single person has been prosecuted in connection with this case and even if the thieves are caught they could be immune from prosecution because of a statute of limitations.
The investigation continues, however, to identify those who commissioned the robbery or possess the art — and of course, to recover the stolen works.
Bulger was until the time of his capture, the FBI’s most-wanted man. He was a shadey underworld figure linked to 19 murders including one in which the victim was shot between the eyes in a parking lot at his country club in Oklahoma. Another was gunned down in broad daylight on a South Boston street to prevent him from talking about the killing in Oklahoma. Bulger was captured Wednesday after one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history. His undoing may have been caused by his impeccably groomed girlfriend.
The 81-year-old boss of South Boston’s vicious Winter Hill Gang was immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the Hollywood film, The Departed.