FBI says they know Gardner museum art thieves
Federal authorities publicly offered a deal to recover the $500 million worth of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 23 years ago, saying on Monday that they would potentially grant immunity to someone involved in the holding the art and suggested people anonymously leave the works in a church to be turned in.Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said Monday that agents have a “high degree of confidence” that they know who stole the paintings, committing the largest property crime in history. However, he refused to name the suspects and said identifying them would hinder the investigation and recovery of the art. The FBI did say, though, that the men are believed to belong to a criminal organization with a base in New England and the mid-Atlantic area.
“Over the past two years we have made significant progress in this investigation,” DesLauriers said. “With today’s announcement, we begin the final chapter.”
The Gardner heist ranks among the most notorious crimes in the city’s history. In 1990 two men dressed as police officers walked into the museum and convinced the guards they were there to investigate a disturbance. The guards were tied up and for the next 81 minutes the thieves collected 13 pieces of art from artists including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas.
Despite knowing who the suspected thieves are, authorities said they don’t know where the art is and are appealing to the public for help.
DesLauriers said agents believe the art has changed hands several times since the theft.
During a news conference Monday, authorities made a push to get the stolen works back to Boston.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz said an immunity agreement would be possible in return for the paintings in good condition.
“The key goal here is to recover those paintings and bring them back,” she said. “And immunity, as a potential for someone who may have knowledge of, who has actual knowledge of, or may have had involvement in the concealment throughout the years of these arts of work may be available to them.”
Geoff Kelly, the special FBI agent in charge of the case, also urged anyone in possession of the paintings to come forward and listed ways other art thieves or others in possession of stolen art have returned the works including leaving them at a church or giving them to a third party to hand them over.
The museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of the paintings in good condition.
During the news conference, the FBI said it believed at least some of the works were taken to the Philadelphia area about 10 years ago and offered for sale.
On Monday, the agency launched a website dedicated to the theft with a documentary-style YouTube video and more information about the art.
Authorities said they were trying to attract world-wide attention to the case to find the paintings, but repeatedly talked about the Connecticut and Philadelphia areas. Digital billboard advertisements about the case were to launch soon in those areas, authorities said.
A special FBI agent from New Haven also recently joined the investigation as a co-case agent.
“It’s likely over the years that someone – a friend, neighbor or relative – has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantel or stored in an attic. We want that person to call us,” DesLauriers said.
Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.