25 Years After Art Heist, Empty Frames Still Hang In Boston's Gardner Museum On March 18, 1990, robbers stole $500 million in art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Author Stephen Kurkjian explains why anyone would bother to steal work so priceless it couldn't be sold.
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25 Years After Art Heist, Empty Frames Still Hang In Boston's Gardner Museum

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25 Years After Art Heist, Empty Frames Still Hang In Boston's Gardner Museum

25 Years After Art Heist, Empty Frames Still Hang In Boston's Gardner Museum

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston houses a world-class art collection, but it's best known for a famous heist. Five-hundred-million dollars' worth of artwork disappeared from its halls 25 years ago today. A security guard working at the museum that night, Rick Abath, spoke to our colleagues at StoryCorps. We heard from him last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RICK ABATH: That night, two cops rang the doorbell. They had hats, badges. They looked like cops. And I let them in. They said, are you here alone? And I said, I have a partner that's out on a round. They said, call him down. And they said, gentlemen, this is a robbery.

MONTAGNE: That robbery has haunted Boston law enforcement and the art world. Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian spent the past two decades looking into the heist. He wrote the book "Master Thieves," and we reached him in Boston. Tell us about the really, really special artworks that were stolen.

STEPHEN KURKJIAN: There were three Rembrandts. One was his only seascape, and it's a brilliant - it's a captivating - to me, it's the most engaging painting that I've ever seen. And the other in that same room was the only Vermeer in New England, and that, too, was stolen. Those pieces made up the bulk of the, let's say, $500 million. It's probably more. No one can put a value on these paintings because no one's going to buy a stolen artwork of this value. And that's why the sense is that the works do not lay in the hands of an art collector who cannot live without this Rembrandt or that Vermeer, but they were stolen for some other reason.

MONTAGNE: Well, what would be that theory as to why an artwork could be stolen that was unsellable?

KURKJIAN: I was pointed to a perception that time and time again, bad guys from back then - was of the most of people I spoke with - two or three - said that they absolutely believe then - and if they were in the crime world, they would believe now - that the authorities, whether they be federal or state, will do anything to get that artwork back. What it means to them is doing a favor in the criminal justice system for one of their associates. It's a get out of jail free card they'll say. It's ridiculous. It's never happened, and it's not going to happen. No one's going to get out of jail for trading in any of this artwork. They may get a second pillow. They may get a transfer to a less high-security prison. Or if someone's facing a sentence, there may be some way to negotiate. And it's that - using these pieces of artwork as negotiating items is, to my mind, what was at the core of the motive for these thugs. And it still, 25 years later, has not led to any arrests. More importantly, it hasn't led to a single concrete sighting of the piece of the art, which makes the mystery deeper and the frustration greater.

MONTAGNE: No trace - I mean, not just the artworks, but functionally no trace of how everything disappeared.

KURKJIAN: The FBI said two years ago they know who did it. They gave no names, and they gave just a brief outline of where the works had gone to and that something had been seen in 2002 in Philadelphia. There was certainly gangs down there that would have loved to have gotten their hands on any of this artwork to try to trade to the authorities for a criminal justice deal for one of their associates.

MONTAGNE: And that's all the FBI has revealed so far. They say it's an ongoing investigation. Well, given that those deals as you've described them are so not likely, do you think that these paintings will ever be recovered?

KURKJIAN: Yes, I do. But I sense the way to handle this is to appeal to - let me say here - the better angels of people's consciences here in Boston and understand that this is our loss. This is not just the loss of the museum or art lovers. Get Cardinal O'Malley in front of those empty frames that still hang on the wall of the Gardner - second floor of the Gardner Museum, speaking about the loss to our commonwealth. Get the governor. Get Mayor Walsh. Get Tom Brady in front of those empty frames and say, Boston, get to work. We're not a championship city until we get this artwork back on the wall.

MONTAGNE: Stephen Kurkjian is the author of "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off The World's Greatest Art Heist." Thank you very much for joining us.

KURKJIAN: Well, thank you very much.

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