A heist of Hollywood heights right here in the Hub

Stolen Paintings From Isabella Steward Gardner Museum
Some paintings were cut from their frames, which still hang empty at the request of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose will required that nothing in the collection ever be moved, and that no new works be brought in — or everything would be given to Harvard University. Credit: Getty Images

It was like something out of the movies: Two men disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the two night watchmen and made off with $500 million worth of artwork.

Now, 23 years after the largest property crime in U.S. history, the FBI says the case is anything but cold.

It’s been six months since the FBI launched a public information campaign about the 13 stolen works of art, and Special Agent Geoff Kelly says the agency is the closest it’s been in years to finding the masterpieces.

“We’re certainly closer now than we were a couple of years ago,” Kelly said. “In the world of art theft, while 23 years sounds like an eternity, it’s not that long in terms of how long valuable paintings can remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t surface until somebody dies or somebody’s cleaning out the estate of someone or somebody goes to jail.”

Although he said it’s a far-fetched theory, Kelly said it’s possible that the paintings — by Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer and Manet, among others — could be in the most obvious of places, including in a basement, on somebody’s wall or in the trunk of a car.

He said he believes the reason they’ve remained hidden is that the thieves are not able to unload them.

“The individuals in art theft, especially in our country, are not the sophisticated professionals like you see in the movies — ‘The Thomas Crowne Affair’ and things like that,” Kelly said.

“They’re criminals, they’re burglary guys. They would just as easily go and steal a Rembrandt as they would steal somebody’s car or somebody’s television … And what we think has occurred in this case is, you steal something that is worth millions but it’s very difficult to find a buyer for it, because obviously the more valuable a painting is the more well known it is, and therefore the more difficult it is to sell it.”

Reports have surfaced that the mafia may have been involved in the thefts, specifically reputed Connecticut gangster Robert Gentile.

FBI officials have said in the past that they know the individuals responsible for the theft and were even able to to trace some of the paintings’ whereabouts in the years following the heist.

Kelly could not comment on any possible suspects in the case, but did say that the trail on the art went cold in Connecticut and Philadelphia in the early 2000s.

He said the FBI made its push in March to educate the public in that region in what the paintings look like.

“As an investigator I’ve been working this case for 10 years so; although I’ve never seen these paintings in person, I can draw them in my sleep,” Kelly said.

“But for someone who’s not so familiar with the case, these paintings could blend in, so we really wanted to get images of them out there. There’s a good chance somebody saw them.”

Film fodder

Kelly said the dramatic manner of the theft, as well as the $5 million reward being offered by the museum coupled with the offer of limited immunity by the U.S. Attorney’s office, does have a Hollywood feel to it.

“I’ve certainly been asked that over the years, would it make a great book or a great movie and I fully agree; the only problem is we’re still missing that last chapter,” he said. “That’s what we need. I’m confident that one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, that the paintings will be returned and that’s obviously the last chapter it would need to make a really complete story with a Hollywood ending.

Casting a crime

Even though Jason Ritter starred in Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” version of the art heist, Angela Peri, owner of Boston Casting, said she knows who should be cast in any future major motion picture about the crime.

“We love Mark Wahlberg,” she said. “I could see him as the lead thief. Christian Bale is also an amazing actor. He is such a chameleon.”

Peri said there were several great local actors who appeared in “The Town” and would be great for any potential movie as well.

“These local guys that play really good hoods, they would be great in it,” she said. “And the museum itself would make a gorgeous backdrop. I think it’s an amazing story.”


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