Solving the Art World’s Biggest Crime

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The 25-year-old mystery of the heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum continues to baffle the world: How did 13 works of art valued at nearly $500 million—and the two men who stole them in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990—vanish without a trace?

Among the masterpieces stolen that night—when two thieves disguised as police officers conned their way into the poorly secured museum and tied up the on-duty guards—were Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, thought to be the only landscape painted by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn; and The Concert, by Johannes Vermeer, described by the museum as one of the most valuable stolen objects in the world.

But despite a $5 million reward offered by the FBI in exchange for leads in this case, now considered the biggest art heist in history, the trail has gone cold. Will a previously unseen surveillance video from the night of the heist lead authorities to the missing art?

Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, author of Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, has followed the case since nearly the beginning, untangling rivalries among Boston’s organized crime groups and parsing countless leads that didn’t pan out. In a conversation with TCR Deputy Editor Alice Popovici, Kurkjian discusses the significance of the surveillance video released by the FBI in August, how the case changed museum security nationwide, and what more it will take to solve the mystery of whodunit. (This interview has been condensed.)

The Crime Report: You’ve spent almost 25 years reporting on the heist. What captivated you about this story?

Stephen Kurkjian: I think it’s both personal as well as professional. Let me take the professional one first.

Any way you look at it, it is an extraordinary story. I like to think of it as Boston’s last, best secret. Any break in it, any little smidgeon of information that emerges from it becomes—not just local—but national and international news. Then you look at what’s involved: This is not diamonds, this is not bonds, this is not stocks. This is the world’s greatest artistic achievements that we’re talking about—that have been stolen.

And that slid into my own personal commitment. My father was a commercial artist. He loved the museum because of the great masters whose works it contained. My two cousins were concert pianists…they played there.

I’m a Boston boy. I grew up in Boston—that means something. It doesn’t mean you just pass through here. My roots are here. I went to high school two doors up from the museum.

When you work as an investigative reporter you always want a higher good involved, and I felt that this had a higher good—to get these paintings, to help to get these paintings back, these artistic achievements that were on the walls of a Boston museum. That was a higher goal for me.

TCR: In August, the FBI released previously unseen surveillance video from the night of the heist. What is the significance of this evidence and why are we just now learning about it?

SK: That’s a very good question, on both points. Let me take the evidentiary importance of it first.

From the appearance of it, and it’s not proven yet, but from the appearance of it, [the tape shows that] the night watchman (Rick Abath) let a visitor against protocol into the museum the night before the theft. Abath has long avowed his innocence—yes, he says he was negligent in what he did, but he avows that he had no complicity in the crime. But it raises questions about whether or not his avowals of innocence are in fact true. And that’s a big change.

But why are we seeing it now? A new Assistant U.S. Attorney had taken over the case and, in questioning of Abath, raised [the question of] why Abath opened the side door and closed it just before the thieves rang the bell to ask for entrance into the museum.

It seems to me that’s forensic evidence. By not looking at it and not confronting Abath with the information until now—I think it’s probably 2013 that he gets confronted with it—gives him the defense that, “I can’t recognize it, I don’t know….it’s been 20-plus years, how do you expect me to recognize that person That’s a real failure of the investigation. [At least] that’s the way the Globe and the New York Times have reported it.

TCR: In your book you reach a different conclusion from that reached by the FBI as far as who the thieves are.

SK: I looked at the best way to tell this story. As I worked it, I still couldn’t find a motive. But I knew the Salemme gang [was involved]. [Editor’s note: The Salemme gang, led by Frank Salemme, was one of Boston’s main criminal groups.] So I reached out to the rival gang—a gang that had been organized by a couple of younger, very aggressive mobsters in Boston, led by Vinnie Ferrara, J.R. Russo, and Sonny Mercurio. I was not an organized crime reporter—but as I went into it I realized that this gang, the Ferrara gang, was at war with the Salemme gang [and others], I think it was in early May of 2014 that I got a call from someone who said he knew Vinnie Ferrara and knew everything about Vinnie Ferrara’s life. And he wanted to know: What did I know about the theft?

And I told him what the FBI was saying and he said, “No, the FBI is wrong.” In effect, he said, it was not pulled off by the Salemme gang. It was pulled off by the Ferrara gang. And he gave me compelling information that I include in my last chapter, and that points to a gang member—an associate of Vinnie Ferrara—right after Vinnie Ferrara got arrested in November of 1989, meeting Ferrara in jail and saying to him that [if someone were to steal something as valuable to the city as the artwork in the Gardner Museum] he believed that the FBI would be willing to negotiate the release of a bad guy [Ferrara]… This guy’s name was Robert Donati, [who] was very close to Vinnie Ferrara. Family members told me that he felt his life depended on Vinnie Ferrara being on the street.

Unfortunately, Donati suffered a brutal death a year after the Gardner robbery. Whether it had anything to do with the Gardener robbery is anybody’s guess. His killers have never been found.

TCR: You cultivated quite a few sources with ties to Boston’s criminal underground. Why do you think they agreed to talk with you?

SK: I think that so many of them, on their own, are trying to find the paintings. This crime is so frustrating to the investigators, and the loss is so important to the museum, that anyone who helps regain [the art] not only gets access to a $5 million reward but gains a stature, as I like to refer to it, as prince of the city.

I think, to be involved in the recovery, has that—”charm” is not the right word—but that attraction for good guys and bad guys. It’s one of the things that compels me. I like to call it purpose. This kind of story has a greater purpose than just throwing a mobster in jail or getting recovery of $5 million or $100 million in diamonds or cash. This is artwork. This is our—as a people—our greatest achievement.

TCR: You write about how security at the Gardner was so poor that it had been cased for a heist almost 10 years before the crime actually happened. What is the biggest lesson that museum administrators, security and law enforcement in Boston and elsewhere learned from the heist?

Two things. One: museum security became a major industry after this theft. It wasn’t just the Gardner that had allowed its contents to be guarded by less-than-modern equipment and personnel. Every smaller museum realized that, there but for fortune, went they.

Second: The fail-safe that wasn’t present was an insurance policy. They did have insurance on slip-and-fall insurance, but they didn’t have a policy that protected the contents. To protect each piece would be prohibitive, but having a policy that protected the artwork would have involved the insurance industry walking through the museum and insisting on improved security, equipment and personnel. That protection was missing because they didn’t have the money for it. It was a series of lapses that left this museum vulnerable to the theft that took place.

TCR: How close is the FBI to solving the case and finding the paintings?

SK: I await every day now the bulletin, like everyone else does.

The FBI and I agree on one thing—that those who are involved in the actual robbery are dead, and it’s only those people who know where the artwork was buried. The way I look at it, no person alive knows where that artwork is buried, is kept, is held. But there are accomplices, there are other gang members, there are even family members of those people who were involved [who] know pieces of the puzzle. Those are the people who have to be convinced to turn the information over to the authorities. They haven’t picked up the phone yet—and this is what I would say to those people: “There is no good reason for this artwork to remain buried. Mrs. Gardner collected these pieces, bought out of her own money—her family’s own money—not to show off to Boston or America or the world how rich she was or how cultured she was. She did it for one transcendent reason, and that was to inspire Bostonians to come up with an American tradition of art. With those paintings missing, that inspiration is lost. That seed, that spark of inspiration is lost.

I was talking to a detective in France who had worked on a case in the mid-1980s, in which several Impressionist [paintings] had been stolen out of a Paris museum. He had helped solve the case. And he [told me] the difference between your case at the Gardner and our case is this: “Parisians felt the loss of this theft, of the theft from the Paris museum. I’m not sure that Bostonians feel, that they too have suffered from this loss.” I think that’s right. And not until that we get Boston to understand what this loss means to each and every one of us—it’s a loss from our common wealth— that the FBI will get the essential tip or the authorities will get the essential tip that they need.

TCR: What, for you, remains the biggest unanswered question?

SK: The museum’s security director has said his biggest question would be to say to the bad guys: “Why did you steal what you stole?” That’s not the question I would ask.

What I would like to know where the evil that the criminal world is capable of intersects with the negligence—I think it was negligence— of the night watchman, who made the grievous errors of letting the bad guys into the museum, and secondly, stepping away from the outside alarm.

Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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