The Two-Way
4:40 pm
Mon March 18, 2013

FBI Says It Knows Who's Behind Biggest Art Museum Heist In History

Originally published on Tue March 19, 2013 7:51 pm

The FBI says it believes it knows who perpetrated the biggest art museum heist in history.

In a press release issued today, the FBI said it is seeking new leads on a theft that took place in 1990 at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston. As The New York Times explains, the thieves were let into the museum in the early morning hours because they were dressed as police officers.

They tied up the two guards on duty and made off with 13 items in 81 minutes. "Included were two large Rembrandt oil paintings that were cut from their frames; single works by Vermeer, Manet and Govaert Flinck; five Degas sketches, and three other items, among them a small etching by Rembrandt," the Times reports.

The total potential sales value? Anywhere from $300 million to $500 million.

"The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft." Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, said in a press release. "With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England."

The problem is that they don't know where the art is at the moment and they want to bring publicity to it outside of Boston, hoping it'll bring some results. The last time the FBI launched a publicity campaign this big, they netted Whitey Bulger. The FBI is planning on purchasing space on digital billboards in Philadelphia and they want to remind people that the Gardner is still offering a $5 million reward.

The museum clarified that that the reward is for "information that leads directly to the recovery of all of our items in good condition."

"You don't have to hand us the paintings to be eligible for the reward," Anthony Amore, the museum's chief of security, said in a statement. "We hope that through this media campaign, people will see how earnest we are in our attempts to pay this reward and make our institution whole. We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It's time for these paintings to come home."

The frames that held the stolen works remain empty.

The FBI has put together a page with photographs of all of the stolen pieces.

Update on Tuesday, March 19 at 5:22 p.m. ET. FBI Has Suspects

Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist, says the FBI has had a list of suspects for a long time. He tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, that the bureau thinks Boston mobster David Turner and his friend George Reissfelder were involved. The statute of limitations, however, has long passed.

"David Turner is currently in prison for armed robbery; George Reissfelder is dead," Boser says. "The paintings have probably moved through a number of hands, if not some hands beyond them."

Boser says he doesn't believe Turner knows where the paintings are now. "If he knew ... he would try and use them as a 'get out of jail free card,'" he says.

You can listen to the rest of their conversation at the top of this post.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

They stole a painting by Vermeer, three Rembrandts, five drawings by Degas - 13 works of art in all, valued at half a billion dollars. We're talking about the notorious art heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, 23 years ago this week. The artworks have never been recovered, and the thieves remain at large. Well, yesterday came a remarkable announcement from the FBI. It says it knows, after all these years, who orchestrated the heist. But FBI officials did not release those names.

For more on the theft and the investigation, I'm joined by Ulrich Boser, who wrote a book about it, "The Gardner Heist." Welcome to the program.

ULRICH BOSER: Thanks so much for having me.

BLOCK: Take us back to the night of March 18th, 1990. What happened?

BOSER: Sure. So in the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men approached the side entrance of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They were thieves, and they were dressed as police officers. They buzzed in on the intercom. They said that they were investigating a disturbance. And the night guard buzzed them in.

They tied up the security guards down in the basement. After that, they ransacked the museum for over an hour. They stole Vermeer's "The Concert," one out of only 36 paintings ever created by that Dutch artist. They also stole Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," which is the only seascape created by the Dutch master.

BLOCK: There are empty frames that hang where these paintings were; still in the museum, to this day?

BOSER: That's exactly right. Isabella Stewart Gardner was very specific in her will - nothing should ever be moved. And as a memorial to the theft, the frames - the empty frames - still hang in the galleries today.

BLOCK: Well, tell me about the investigation, and the best leads that the FBI had early on.

BOSER: The FBI has run down countless leads. They've gone to Paris, they've gone to Tokyo; all in an effort to return these priceless masterpieces. And until yesterday, the FBI has never sort of come forward and said that the paintings have really popped up, that they've ever been offered for sale. And that's really the big news here. We've known, I think, for a pretty long time who robbed the museum. We've had good evidence about that - a Boston mobster named David Turner, and a friend of his named George Reissfelder.

But what's new here is - two things. One, the FBI is saying, we're not looking to put someone in prison; we're looking, simply, for these artworks to come back. And second, they believe that the paintings have moved from the Boston area - where most people widely believed that they were stashed - and that they were offered up for sale; that they were transported down to the Philadelphia-Connecticut area, and that somewhere in that area, the paintings are today.

BLOCK: Why would they not want to put somebody in prison for this?

BOSER: Right now, such a long time has transpired that really, what's important is the paintings. David Turner is currently in prison for armed robbery. George Reissfelder is dead. The paintings have probably moved through a number of hands, if not some hands beyond them. I don't believe David Turner knows where these paintings are today. If he knew where these paintings are, he would try and use them as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

BLOCK: This investigation has been going on for so long. Why are they coming out now - why is the FBI coming out now?

BOSER: I think there's - two reasons. One, it's the anniversary. It's a time of year where many people reflect back and wonder what happened to these paintings. The second reason is that in Boston, there have long been big mysteries. One of them was, where is Whitey Bulger, who was on the FBI's Most Wanted List. And the second mystery was, where are the Isabella Stewart Gardner paintings?

The Bulger case was solved, and it was solved through a publicity push. The FBI said - again - the public, we need your help to solve this case. And I think they've learned from that case and are applying the same methods here. No tip here is too small.

BLOCK: Ulrich Boser - his book is titled "The Gardner Heist." Thanks for coming in.

BOSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.