Sunday, March 24, 2013

FBI Says They Have Identified Theives From 1990 Gardner Art Muesum Heist

In recent years, Hollywood seems to have spawned a sub-genre of New England crime dramas with films like The Departed, Mystic River or The Town. But between the Whitey Bulger saga, the Bonded Vault heist and the Gardner Art Museum robbery, truth is stranger than fiction.

For those of you who didn't know, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Museum heist was the biggest art theft in modern history. On St Patrick's Day in 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers overpowered security guards working the graveyard shift at the museum and after 81 minutes, made off with an estimated $500 million in artwork from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas among others. According to investigators and art experts, while the theives expertly circumvented the museum's alarm system they did considerable damage to some of the paintings when they were removed from their frames. The stolen paintings included Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Gallillee, the artists only nautically themed work.

The museum offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork, but the trail quickly went cold despite all signs pointing to the heist being planned and carried out by locals. Carmello Merlino and Robert Guarente- two Quincy, MA-based mobsters- were considered suspects early on and were reportedly recorded on wiretaps discussing returning the stolen artwork to the museum to collect the reward- if they could only find it first. Interestingly, when the Feds had arrested Merlino on unrelated drug trafficking charges, the mobster offered to recover a $5000 painting stolen from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Museum in Cambridge, MA in exchange for leniency. Guarente passed away in 2004 and Merlino is also deceased.

However, there was never enough evidence to charge either Merlino or Guarente with the heist. Some journalists and investigators belive that the two were not intially involved, but were going to steal the paintings from the robbers and return it to the musuem.

But last weekend, the FBI had announced they had identified the theives from the 1990 heist and say that the stolen artwork had changed hands a number of times between east coast organized crime groups in the last decade.
In a stunning twist in a case that had frustrated investigators for decades, federal law enforcement officials said today that they had identified the people who stole $500 million worth of masterworks in a daring heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

The officials also said they had determined where the artworks had traveled in the years after the robbery, which is considered the greatest art theft in history. But the officials said they did not know where they were now and were appealing to the public for their help in finding them.

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence in the years after the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft. With that confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England,” Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the FBI, said.

DesLauriers said that after the attempted sale of the paintings about a decade ago, the FBI did not know where the artworks — which included three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a portrait by Edouard Manet, and sketches by Renoir — had been taken.

Officials said at a Boston news conference they would not release the names of the individuals who masqueraded as police officers to gain entry in the early-morning robbery at the Gardner exactly 23 years ago.
Although the statute of limitations has run out on the original theft, the art theives or parties who purchased the stolen artwork could face federal charges of transporting stolen property across state lines.

My first thought is that a little like the Whitey Bulger manhunt- the Winter Hill Gang leader had eluded the FBI for decades, but the fugitive mobster and his girlfriend were arrested in Santa Monica, CA within days of an FBI Public Service ad airing on daytime talk shows showing girlfriend Catherine Greig. Like the Bulger PSA, there wasn't really any significant new information or developments in the Garder Museum heist announced at the press conference, but the FBI was using the internet and social networking in an attempt to steer the investigation towards something that might've been overlooked earlier that could ultimately break the case open.

The FBI also seems to be placing an emphasis on recovering the artwork- to that end, they've set up a dedicated website with more information on the heist, the investigation and the missing paintings.

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