Revisiting The Gardner Museum Art Heist
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
On this date, 19 years ago, two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was in the wee hours of the morning, 1:24 AM, to be exact. Within minutes, the pseudo police officers had handcuffed the museum guards and announced, gentlemen, this is a robbery, and it turned out to be an astounding heist, the largest unsolved art theft in history.
But what's most astounding is that after all these years, the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft is still unsolved, despite a long and costly investigation and a $5 million reward. The journalist Olrich Boser has tried to crack open new leads in the case with his book, "The Gardner Heist," released last month. And he joins us now from Boston. Welcome to the program.
Mr. OLRICH BOSER (Author, "The Gardner Heist"): Thanks so much for having me.
NORRIS: Could you quickly describe the Gardner caper? I guess that's what police have called it all these years.
Mr. BOSER: That's right. On March 18th, 1990, two men sweet-talked their way into the museum. They were dressed as police officers. They had the caps, the badges, even the little pins that police officers wear on their lapels. They stole five Degas, three Rembrandts and a Vermeer.
This is the largest art heist in history. It is the biggest burglary in American memory. Experts say, believe these paintings are worth as much as $500 million.
NORRIS: And despite that knowledge, the mystery is still unsolved after all these years, but there is a long list of suspects.
Mr. BOSER: There is a very, very long list of suspects. Part of my reporting for my book, I put forward a theory of a new suspect. I fingered David Turner as one of the thieves. Investigators believe that David Turner helped run a million dollar cocaine ring. Investigators believe that David Turner was involved in as many as a half dozen murders.
And I uncovered a new eyewitness and he gave very specific description of the thieves in the days after the heist. I also uncovered FBI files that show that David Turner's underworld boss, a guy named Carmello Merlino, twice tried to return the paintings. And when I went to David Turner and I said, look at all this evidence, he denied having any role in the heist.
But he did begin to brag. He told me that I should put his picture on the cover of my book. And I believe that David Turner no longer has access to the art. And I think this shouldn't be surprising. Of course, this theft happened, you know, almost 20 years ago. And I suspect that the thieves sold the paintings, pushed them alongside either to criminal associates or to someone else and lost control of the art.
NORRIS: You keep saying that it's not clear where this art is. Any leads? Any ideas where it might be stored?
Mr. BOSER: My personal feeling is that the paintings are in the Boston area in somewhere in New England. I believe that the thieves perhaps stashed them, perhaps, like, behind a dishwasher, or maybe tucked in an attic or slipped into a basement. And that's why the art hasn't been returned. If I knew where the paintings were I would try to return them. I mean, this is a $5 million question.
NORRIS: I'm curious about an art heist like this, which is very bold, quite brazen to do something like this, what kind of person or personality profile would be able to pull something like this off?
Mr. BOSER: Sure. It's important to keep in mind that there are no real life Pierce Brosnans. There are no real life Cary Grants. For the most part, the people who steal art are run-of-the-mill criminals. They're aging drug dealers. They're out-of-work bank robbers. They steal art because it's valuable, but then often it's sort of an albatross. They don't know what to do with the paintings.
NORRIS: So there are no Thomas Crowns.
Mr. BOSER: There are, alas, no Thomas Crowns.
NORRIS: And if you visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum now, there are still empty spaces where the art used to be.
Mr. BOSER: That's right. If you go to the second floor, the empty frames still hang on the wall. Isabella Stewart Gardner's will was very clear. Nothing in her museum should ever be changed, and so after the heist the museum curators put the frames back up there.
And so when you go up there, and you look at them, these frames look empty and lifeless. They look sad a bit tragic, but I really do believe these frames are simply waiting. They're waiting for the art to be returned.
NORRIS: Olrich Boser, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. BOSER: Thank you.
NORRIS: Olrich Boser is the author of the book, "The Gardner Heist."