March 18, 1990
In the early morning hours, two men dressed as Boston Police officers force their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and make off with 13 pieces of art, including Vermeer’s, The Concert, three Rembrandts, including Storm on the Sea of Galilee, five sketches by Degas and a Manet portrait. The theft, which is immediately investigated by the FBI, is deemed the largest art heist in world history.
Anne Hawley, director of the museum, received an anonymous letter saying that the artwork will be returned for a ransom if the museum shows it is willing to cooperate by placing a note in The Boston Globe and convinces the FBI to resist making any arrests while negotiations take place. The note is placed in The Globe and Hawley is hopeful that a breakthrough is imminent. But the individual writes a second letter the following week claiming that the FBI did not suspend its investigative work and was breaking off negotiating.
Under the headline “We’ve Seen It,” The Boston Herald reports that its reporter Tom Mashberg had been taken by a source to an undisclosed warehouse where he had what appeared to be the stolen Rembrandt seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” The coverage sets off a stormy set of negotiations between William Youngworth, an antiques dealer with ties to Boston’s criminal underworld who contends he had arranged the viewing, and the FBI and US attorney’s office. The authorities demand more proof that Youngworth has access to the artwork and he submits microscopic chips purportedly from the painting. Tests by the museum and FBI show while the chips are from that era, they were not from the Rembrandt.
An FBI supervisor tells Hawley that it has come up with good information on who was responsible for the theft, “one is dead, one is in jail and one is on the streets.” The information appears to point to the involvement of three young toughs who had been operating for several years out of a Dorchester auto body shop. The FBI soon learns that a major armored car heist is being planned by Carmelo Merlino, the owner of the auto body shop and for the next year, through an undercover informant at the shop, it tracks the plot as well as banter between the owner and several visitors about his hope of recovering the stolen Gardner pieces and gaining the $5 million reward.
FBI arrests Merlino and three others in the armored car plot including David Turner and Stephen Rossetti, who have ties to a major Boston crime gang and whose names have long been linked to the Gardner theft. FBI agents tell all four that they can negotiate their release from jail and the dropping of all charges if they facilitate the return of the Gardner paintings. The four deny any knowledge and are subsequently convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
A federal grand jury hears testimony from Elene Guarente that her late husband, Robert Guarente, a well-known Boston crime figure who died in 2004, had given two or more paintings to his long-time friend Robert Gentile following lunch in a Portland, Me. restaurant. Gentile at first agrees to help the FBI in its investigation but insists he never received any artwork from Guarente.
The FBI conducts a daylong search of Gentile’s home and backyard seeking clues to the stolen artwork’s whereabouts. In his basement, agents uncover an original newspaper account of the theft and a list, believed written by an acquaintance of Gentile’s, showing what each of the stolen pieces might bring on the black market. Agents also uncover that Gentile’s backyard shed contains a false floor and beneath it they find a deeply-dug ditch that is empty. Although he denies that his father was in any way involved, Gentile’s son tells the agents that Gentile kept his most secret belongings in large plastic containers inside the ditch and that a flood had destroyed whatever was inside the containers several years before. Agents press Gentile to come clean on his involvement, saying that they will drop small-time drug trafficking charges against him, but he refuses and is sentenced to prison.
March 18, 2013
On 23rd anniversary of the theft, Richard DesLauriers, head of the FBI’s Boston office, and US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, provide a progress report on the investigation. Although he provides few details and no names, DesLauriers says that the FBI had entered the “final chapter” of the probe, having determined that a criminal organization with a base in New England and the mid-Atlantic states was involved. Although the whereabouts of the stolen pieces was unknown, DesLauriers said the investigation had concluded they were last in Connecticut and an effort had been made to fence them in Philadelphia in 2002. Although the investigation had learned nothing more recent about the location of the artwork since then, DesLauriers called on the public to do whatever it could to assist in the probe. Ortiz repeats the pledge that no one who facilitates on their own the return of the paintings will be prosecuted by her office and will be eligible for the $5 million reward still being offered by the museum.
Gentile, released from prison, insists in an exclusive interview with the author that he knows nothing about the whereabouts of the paintings.