By Bob Jackman
NEW YORK CITY – On the evening of November 14, FBI officials met with national leaders of the art community to provide an update on the Gardner Museum art theft. The event was sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), the nation’s leading independent clearinghouse for information on art law, art authentication, stolen art, and art fraud. The 400 members of the audience included leading art law attorneys, art dealers, and art experts. There were also over 15 FBI agents and employees in attendance along with representatives of various US Attorney Offices.
Four FBI speakers addressed the audience. Those specifically assigned to the Gardner case were W. Thomas Cassano, Supervisory Special Agent for the Gardner case since the theft, and Neil Cronin. Several years ago Cronin replaced Dan Falzone as case agent.
The March 18, 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is often ranked as one of the most infamous art thefts of the Twentieth Century. Some consider another to be the “Mona Lisa” theft of 1911. In 1990 the FBI consultants estimated that the 13 artworks stolen at the Gardner museum had a value between $200 million and $300 million. In his IFAR presentation Supervising Agent Cassano estimated that today the works have a value of about $500 million, but art dealers in the audience hooted and called “More, More.” At the subsequent IFAR reception, most specialists believed the current value exceeds $500 million, but beyond that there were no consistent dollar figures.
Cassano provided positive news that damage to most artworks had been limited. Contemporaneous accounts of the thefts reported that paintings had been cut from their frames as they hung on the wall. In the art community it was believed that most were damaged at that time. During the question and answer session, a man noted that Cassano mentioned damage to only two works, and he asked if other paintings had been damaged.
Cassano responded that the first two paintings stolen were damaged. Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” were both taken from the wall, their frames smashed, and the canvases cut from their stretchers. Good news, actually, as this evidence may mean that the works were cut along the outer edge of their stretchers. Often, when paintings have been cut while hanging on the wall, thieves have followed the inner edge of the stretcher, while the outer edge of the image is left behind on the frame.
Concluding his comments about the handling of the two Rembrandts, Cassano reported that evidence indicated that the canvases had been rolled at the site, and then removed.
Cassano also had good news about the eleven other works. He reported that beyond the first two Rembrandts taken the FBI has no evidence to indicate that the other artworks were damaged during the theft. He also expressed the hope that the thieves have stored the artworks under proper conditions of humidity and temperature to protect them from deterioration.
Information presented by Cassano resolved the debate as to whether or not the thieves were assisted by outdoor collaborators. He stated that there appeared to be one or two other participants outside, and that they made use of either a van or dark car.
Cassano reported that a tape inside the museum showed the thieves making four forays through the galleries. After taking the two Rembrandt oil paintings in their first trip, they removed Jan Vermeer’s oil painting “The Concert,” Rembrandt’s etching “Self Portrait,” and Govaert Flinck’s painting “Landscape with an Obelisk” during their second. Their third foray was to the Short Gallery where they took five works on paper by Edgar Degas. Finally, they went to the Blue Room and removed Edouard Manet’s oil painting “Chez Tortoni.” On the way out, they took a Sang Dynasty bronze vase and a ten-inch French bronze eagle that was a finial on a flag standard.
These routes imply the perpetrators passed the works to members of their group outside, who were responsible for placing the rdf_Descriptions in an escape vehicle.
Cassano also noted that the thieves were frustrated by a French flag concealed in a museum security case. Marks on the case indicated they made a considerable effort to take the flag, but they were thwarted. Cassano commented that the thieves might have taken the French eagle as an alternative.
Another interesting aspect of Cassano’s review was that the crime was conducted more like a burglary than a robbery. He stated that the thieves did not assert that they had weapons and no weapons were seen. Using a clever deceptive ruse, they did succeed in handcuffing both guards in the museum. The guards were taken to a remote basement room and each was separately secured to a stationary object. Duct tape was placed over their mouths and eyes. Confinement of the guards consumed 20 minutes.
The thieves spent the next hour stealing specific objects from the museum. During that time they twice went to the basement to check the condition of the guards, ensuring handcuffs had not become too tight or duct tape an impediment to the guards’ breathing. This concern sets the suspects apart from the pool of criminals that habitually makes an excess use of weapons and violence.
During the question-and-answer session, a curator asked if small museums are safer with an excellent alarm system or with 24-hour guards. Cassano saw merit in each arrangement. However, he then provided further information about the Gardner crime. After noting the thieves had used a ruse and that the guards had allowed them into the museum, he commented on the panic button. Apparently the thieves not only knew there was a panic button that would sound an outside alarm, they knew its location as well as the absence of any other outside alarm in the museum. His basis for those conclusions was that the thieves cleverly drew the guards away from the panic button, and thereafter conducted themselves without fear of concealed alarms.
Cassano and his staff have pursued the case around the globe, and in some instances they have pioneered legal processes. For example, they executed the first American search warrant in Japan. That effort took six months of negotiations, and ultimately the suspect graciously opened his door. The suspect admitted to owning a copy of a stolen Gardner work, but that he sometimes told lady visitors that it was the original.
During the question-and-answer session, several queries addressed aspects of the statute of limitations. Cassano diplomatically dealt with the topic. Firstly, he repeated that the Bureau’s thrust now was into the recovery of the artworks, and by inference he implied they are less concerned with prosecuting the guilty parties. Secondly, he stated that as a result of the Gardner case and several similar cases, the statute of limitations for crimes of this sort has been extended to 20 years. Thirdly, he noted that the statute of limitations is a complex legal concept, and not as simple as something that expires in five years. Essentially, there are actions that can trigger a renewal of the matter, and the clock can be set ticking anew. Most of the audience had previously endured entire days of legalistic debates on this subject, and they appreciated Cassano’s brevity.
One audience member, Roy Anderson, seized the opportunity to emphasis the government’s position on recovery versus prosecution. In response Cronin stated recovery was the prime objective and that officials can work out an immunity arrangement with those in possession of the works. The $5 million reward is being offered through the Gardner Museum, and that is a matter for the museum to handle.
Also during the question-and-answer session, Bill Young from the audience suggested that James “Whitey” Bulger and the Bulger crime family should be the prime suspects for the Gardner case. He cited the current murder cases in which the US Attorney’s Office alleges FBI agent John Connolly conspired with James Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi in a number of murders. Young was allowed to present a body of circumstantial evidence that supported making Bulger and the Bulger crime family suspects.
Agent Cronin responded that the FBI does not publicly identify suspects during an ongoing investigation, and it also does not float theories in public. However he also went on to say that the bureau has heard Bulger’s name mentioned before in connection with the case, and that investigators have pursued every possible lead in the case.
The audience responded to Young’s position with the loudest outburst of evening, one that appeared to support his position. However, court testimony and criminal proceedings relating to the Bulger crime family are saturated with use weapons and violence far in excess of any reasonable need, unlike the actions of the Gardner Museum thieves.
Audience member Cathy Webber proposed an Irish Republican Army connection, and cited court convictions and testimony that demonstrate an IRA-Bulger link that has continued for decades. She pointed out that there are only 32 Vermeer paintings in the world, and that three others have been stolen by the IRA. Cronin responded to that charge in the same manner that he responded to the charge concerning Bulger.
In addition to the art theft itself, Cassano hinted at and later slightly amplified upon a potential spin-off legal case relating to alleged accounts of recent viewings of the paintings. He referred to the matter as a “pending, prosecutable case.” In presenting a history of the case, Cassano recalled extensively publicized efforts of Randolph, Mass. criminal William Youngworth to broker the return of the artwork. Youngworth was not involved in the original theft, but in 1997 and 1998 sought reward money and legal concessions in other cases in return for a willingness to broker a return of the Gardner artworks.
Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg wrote extensively about Youngworth’s position and his claims that he could broker the return of the art. Officials asked Youngworth’s representatives to provide tangible evidence of the art. Youngworth supporters provided photographs that they claimed were made directly from the paintings. Routine FBI analysis quickly showed these were photographs of photographs, not photographs of paintings. Officials again requested tangible evidence.
Shortly thereafter, Mashberg wrote an account of a clandestine trip in which a Youngworth associates took him to a warehouse. He reported viewing paintings and that those paintings appeared to be the Gardner works. In recalling this episode, Cassano stated that he was inclined to believe that Mashberg had briefly seen some paintings, maybe for a few seconds.
Youngworth was released from custody in Boston, Mass., October 13. According to an Associated Press report, he still intends to claim a reward for the stolen artwork. The Supreme Judicial Court threw out his 1997 indictment as a habitual offender. Youngworth said his attorney, Lisa Siegel Belanger, has been talking with museum officials and federal investigators, and said he is “hopeful” the paintings can be returned, so “we can put this all behind us.” Cassano confirmed the contact with Youngworth’s lawyers, but stated that to date no significant information had been forthcoming.
During the question-and-answer session, the audience pushed Cassano to clarify whether there was a case against Mashberg. Choosing his words carefully, Cassano slightly expanded on the theme. He stated that his concern was over the accounts that had been given relating to the viewing. He repeated that there was “a pending, prosecutable case.” He refrained from linking Mashberg’s name directly with the pending case.
Cassano did not cite a specific violation of law. Historically, cases based on improper claims of viewing evidence have been pursued as an obstruction of justice. In general terms, an obstruction of justice case can be brought when investigative forces are deliberately misled, and particularly if such misinformation induces officials to mistakenly allocate resources.
Readers will recall that the warehouse paintings were ultimately discredited a month later on the basis of paint chip analysis. Antiques and The Arts Weekly was the first publication to call for chip analysis, and other trade and general publications subsequently followed with similar stands.