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FBI Claims to Have “Confirmed Sightings” of Stolen Gardner Artwork, But Offers Only Stale Information and Conjecture

Posted in Museums

The FBI said today that the bureau has received “confirmed” sightings of the works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  Thieves dressed as police robbed the museum of thirteen major works of art on March 18, 1990, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet.  Read carefully, however, the story is nothing new at all, just a retelling of last year’s “news” released around the anniversary of the theft and a raft of conjecture.

In a television interview, Special Agent Geoff Kelly, the FBI agent in charge said that the agency believes it knows who was responsible for the theft, and when the works left Massachusetts.  He also said that over the years, there have been “confirmed sightings” of the paintings, though not all at once. 

Carmello Merlino ran a business out of a Dorchester auto garage, where Kelly says, an informant pegged Merlino for planning the theft to obtain the most famous work: The Storm on the Sea of Gallilee  by Rembrandt. 

Kelly himself said only that Merlino was a “person of interest” and that it was a”strong possibility” that Merlino was involved. 

The FBI also identified Robert Guarente, another frequenter of the Dorchester garage, as a person of interest.  Guarente, they say, is the link to Robert Gentile, a reputed Connecticut organized crime figure.  A search warrant was executed in 2012 on Gentile’s home.  There was no artwork, but “police paraphernalia” were found, which Kelly described as curious and “similar” to those used in the Gardner theft. 

Kelly portrayed Gentile as a member of La Cosa Nostra in Philadelphia, which is where Kelly said “a number of individuals” had seen the artwork from the Gardiner offered for sale.  Gentile has categorically denied any involvement. 

If my skepticism sounds familiar, it is because there was a similar episode last year, when the FBI claimed “with a  high degree of confidence” that it knew who had stolen the paintings.  That story, as has often been the case, was released around the anniversary of the theft (though without mentioned that coincidence).  Richard DesLauriers, the Special Agent in Charge in Boston, said then: “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,”

The FBI theory seems to be this: an informant in a Dorchester garage accused Merlino of being involved, and someone else in the same garage knew Gentile, who had some police paraphernalia in his house.  Really?  Put that way, it is pretty clear why the FBI has not arrested anyone or offered more information: it cannot prove any of this.

The FBI said a year ago that it knew who was responsible, but clearly does not want to accuse Gentile directly.  Instead, it is essentially asking the public to connect the fact that Gentile has some relation to Philadelphia, to the uncorroborated offers for sale in an “I’m just saying” sort of way.

The Gardner heist is a civic tragedy in here in Boston.  It struck at one of our most treasured institutions.  I can still picture the full-page headline in the Boston Globe the day that it happened (the Art Law Report was just a gleam in the eye of a local high school student then).  But these recycled stories are not advancing the ball.  If the FBI thinks it has a case against a responsible person, it should move on that information.  If it is simply going to make insinuations, it should stop.