Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings stolen 27 years ago miraculously popped up for sale in a recent Craigslist poster ad.
That is, until the poster was charged with fraud.
A West Virginia man was arrested Monday on fraud charges related to a scheme in which he attempted to solicit buyers via Craiglist for the stolen paintings, Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and Vermeer’s “The Concert,” the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
Todd Andrew Desper, 47, went by the alias “Mordokwan” on the classified ad website and solicited buyers in foreign cities like Venice and London. Interested buyers were told to create an encrypted email in order to communicate with him, according to the attorney’s office.
Individuals who wanted to help the recovery of the artwork, as well as those who wanted the $5 million reward offered by the museum, contacted the authorities about the Craigslist postings, officials said.
The security director for the Gardner contacted Desper to see whether he really had the stolen masterpieces, according to the feds. Desper told the director to send a cashier’s check for $5 million to a West Virginia location and claimed the painting “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” would be sent in return, hidden behind another artwork.
The combined value of the 13 pieces of art stolen in the infamous 1990 Gardner heist is an estimated $500 million.
The investigation concluded that Desper had no access to or information about the stolen artwork and instead was conducting a multimillion dollar fraud scheme by targeting foreign art buyers, officials said.
Desper was charged in federal court in Boston with wire fraud and attempted wire fraud. He was arrested at his home in Beckley, West Virginia, on Monday and held in custody overnight.
He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. He is set to appear in federal court in the District of Massachusetts on June 9.
On March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the Gardner Museum and tied up the security guard, proceeding to steal 13 pieces of art including Degas sketches, a Rembrandt piece and a Vermeer painting that was one of only 36 in existence.
The estimated $500 million value of the stolen works makes the heist the largest property crime in U.S. history.