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FBI Claims to Know Identity of Gardner Thieves, Timing Deserves Scrutiny

Posted in Museums, Uncategorized

The FBI issued a press release today in which it states that with a “high degree” of confidence, it has identified the thieves responsible for the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  This development is remarkable for what it says, and what it does not, and deserving of a skeptical view given its timing.  The FBI release adds sufficient details to rise above the rumor mill, but it raises as many questions as it answers. 

Remarkably now nearly a quarter century ago, in 1990 two thieves dressed as Boston police offices gained access to the Gardner museum, and made away with, among other items:

The Concert by Vermeer

A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

A Self-Portrait by Rembrandt

Landscape with Obelisk by Govaert Flinck

Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet

Five drawings by Edgar Degas: La Sortie de Pesage; Cortege aux Environs de Florence; Program for an artistic soiree 1 & 2; and Three Mounted Jockeys

The robbery has never been solved.  Claiming to have unearthed a link to the theft has become, in the 23 years since, a bit of a sport in Boston, with little in the way of verifiable detail (to wit, within days of James “Whitey” Bulger’s arrest, speculation was already rampant that he might know something about the crime).  By contrast, Tom Mashberg and Anthony Amore’s 2011 book Stealing Rembrandts addresses the less-glamorous but more realistic aspects of art crime (including this one) with far more nuanced reporting.

The bottom line, however, is that the crime remains unsolved.  The FBI’s press release today does provide, for the first time in many years, additional detail about what the FBI believes happened to the art.  From the FBI: “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,” according to Richard DesLauriers, Special Agent in Charge of the Boston office.  In addition, DeLauriers stated that, “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.”  After the attempted sale, which took place approximately a decade ago, the FBI claims that its knowledge of the art’s whereabouts is limited.

The new information begs the question of “who,” naturally, but no information has been released on that question yet.  And, unfortunately, the most glaring aspect of the release is today’s date, i.e., the 23rd anniversary of the theft.  It has become a regular, if not annual, press event to speculate this time of year what may have become of the stolen artworks.  If, as the FBI says, it knows “with a high degree of confidence” who the thieves were—but not where the artwork is now, what does that say about the FBI’s degree of certainty?  Or, conversely, if the FBI has known of the path of the art, why is it revealing the information only now?  The anniversary timing deserves at least a small dose of skepticism. 

This time may be different, but the FBI has been “appealing to the public” for 23 years.  Whatever it now believes happened 15 years ago may be true, but the crime frankly appears no closer to being solved than it was yesterday.  In that respect today’s development may be less “stunning” than it is somewhat predictable.