Thirteen Needles

Twenty-five years ago this March, two burglars made off with 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  To date, no one has ever been arrested in connection with the theft, and none of the stolen items has been found.

Until recently, I had assumed the nightmare scenario for the museum was that all 13 pieces would remain missing forever, despite exhaustive efforts over the last quarter-century to get them back.

However, from a new book that tries to make sense of the Gardner heist and its aftermath, I realize there is an eventuality that is even worse:  What if the stolen paintings no longer exist?  What if they have long been buried or destroyed and all the inquiries into their whereabouts have been in vain?

It’s a terrible thing to consider—something, no doubt, that the FBI and museum officials have tried very hard not to consider—but we must entertain the possibility in light of the facts.

Admittedly, when it comes to this story, facts of any kind have been awfully hard to come by.  The FBI took charge of the investigation from the start and has been very careful not to disclose anything even slightly interesting about its findings.  That the case remains elusive after all these years only serves to heighten the intrigue into what is already one of the most compelling grand thefts in modern times—and certainly one of the strangest.

It was in the early hours of March 18, 1990—just as St. Patrick’s Day was winding down—when two men in police uniforms and fake mustaches talked their way into Ms. Gardner’s stately treasure house, tied up the night watchmen and proceeded to plunder their way through the museum’s storied galleries, crudely cutting paintings from their frames and leaving piles of broken glass everywhere.

Among the items they stole were The Concertone of only 34 surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer—and Rembrandt van Rijn’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which, apart from being utterly stunning, is notable as the only instance in which the great Dutch master painted the sea.

The thieves also made off with (among other things) two additional Rembrandts, five drawings by Edgar Degas, paintings by Édouard Manet and Govert Flinck and (for whatever reason) an eagle-shaped bronze finial from atop an old flag.

All told, the 13 works are estimated to be worth around $500 million.  On that basis, it is considered the greatest art heist of all time.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read, in the newly-published Master Thieves by retired Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, that the whole caper was likely planned, executed and covered up by a bunch of ignorant, reckless idiots.

Say what you will about the art world’s evil, twisted black marketeers, but at least they treat their stolen property with respect.

If Kurkjian’s reporting is to be believed—a reasonable bet for a newsman with more than 40 years’ experience and three Pulitzer Prizes to his name—the Gardner heist contained no such James Bond-like elegance.  Rather, it was simply and tragically a consequence of an epic Boston gang war in the late 1980s.  Really, it had nothing to do with art at all.

Kurkjian’s hunch—derived from an apparently credible source—is that a mid-level mobster named Robert Donati carried out the robbery with an associate to facilitate the prison release of a key member of his tribe.  That is, he intended to use the near-priceless artwork as a bargaining chip with the authorities:  If they would agree to set his jailed friend free, he would arrange for the safe return of the art.

Fair enough, except for two unexpected developments.  First, the heist immediately became a major world news event, with not one, not two, but 40 FBI agents assigned to the case, following every conceivable lead.  And second, roughly a year after the theft, Donati, the alleged mastermind, stepped out his front door and was stabbed 21 times by assailants who have never been identified.

So what happened to the paintings in the period in between?

The trouble, as Kurkjian explains, is that mobsters like these have a way of not telling each other what they’re up to.  For all sorts of reasons—most of them involving simple greed or self-preservation—key details about major scores tend not to leak out into the greater mob community.  Indeed, even within more intimate criminal “families,” no one goes out of their way to volunteer information that could lead to double-crossing or glory-taking somewhere down the line.

What may well have happened, in other words, is that Donati panicked in light of the robbery’s wide publicity, hid the artwork where it could never be found and then got himself murdered without bothering to mention the buried treasure’s whereabouts to anyone who might still be alive.

That would certainly explain the amazing fact that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting of any of the 13 pieces in the last 25 years—a highly improbable feat had the paintings been freely bouncing around the criminal underworld, as many assume they have.

And so the ultimate hindrance to recovering the Gardner stash may not be a lack of cooperation from the alleged burglars’ surviving comrades, who famously pride themselves on not being “rats.”  It may be that these unsavory characters have been telling the truth the whole time:  That nobody knows nothin’.

It may be, then, that the world’s most devastating art heist was orchestrated for no good reason, with no beneficial results—not even for those who did it—and with no happy ending.  A disparate set of masterworks may have been buried, burned or otherwise disposed of without anyone even realizing it, and we may never know for sure whether the search is worth continuing.

That said, it is a great credit to our civilization that we haven’t given up after all this time; that the case is still very much in the news; that the museum is offering a $5 million reward and legal immunity to anyone who assists in the art’s recovery; that we recognize the intrinsic value of great art and have a wing of the FBI (albeit a small one) devoted solely to such recoveries.  That the Dutch Room at the Gardner Museum still displays the empty frames on its walls, figuring that sooner or later they will once again be filled.

Master Thieves—required reading for anyone with an interest in this case—filled me with much more despair than hope, even as its author maintains some optimism that at least a portion of the Gardner plunder will someday rise from the dead.  He trusts, as do the authorities, that there is at least one living person with an idea of where the paintings might be, and might be persuaded to divulge such intelligence under the right circumstances.

I hope so, too, but from Kurkjian’s own reporting, I worry that we’re facing a haystack without any needles.  That the reason no one has seen the missing art is that it no longer exists.  That not all mysteries can be solved—including ones worth half a billion dollars.

The most revered of the missing Gardner pieces—the Rembrandt seascape—depicts a famous event from the gospels in which Jesus calms a great storm by performing a miracle.  If we are ever to set eyes on that mesmerizing scene again—along with the 12 others—a miracle might be the only thing for which we can hope.


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