BOSTON – The FBI says it has solved the decades-old mystery of who stole $500 million in artwork from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but it is withholding the identities of the thieves, adding another twist to the largest property heist in U.S. history.
On Monday, the 23rd anniversary of the theft, authorities announced a new publicity campaign aimed at generating tips on what they still don’t know: Where is the missing artwork? Their focus has shifted from catching the thieves to bringing home the precious artwork, including paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Degas and Vermeer.
“The key goal here is to recover those paintings and bring them back,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said at a news conference at the FBI’s Boston headquarters.
Just after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men posing as police officers pulled off the heist, stealing 13 pieces of artwork in 81 minutes. For more than two decades, the FBI has chased leads around the globe, finally making progress over the last few years so that they now believe they know the identity of the thieves.
The FBI’s Richard DesLauriers said the agency believes the thieves belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. He said authorities believe the art was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region in the years after the theft, and offered for sale in Philadelphia about a decade ago. After the attempted sale, the FBI does not know what happened to the artwork, he said.
DesLauriers said releasing their identities could hamper the investigation. He refused to say whether the thieves are now in prison on other charges, and would not say whether they are dead or alive.
In the meantime, empty frames hang on the walls of the museum, a reminder of the “enormous loss” and a symbol of hope that they will be recovered, Ortiz said. The stolen paintings include: “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer; and three Rembrandts, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” Self-Portrait,” and “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” his only seascape.
Ortiz said the statute of limitations has expired on crimes associated with the actual theft. She said anyone who knowingly possesses or conceals the stolen art could still face charges, but said prosecutors are willing to discuss potential immunity deals to get the artwork back.
The FBI said it is re-emphasizing a $5 million reward being offered by the museum for information that leads directly to the recovery of the art.