The heist of the century

For more than 30 years, he was the scourge of the world's art thieves. Working deep under cover, often for months at a time, FBI special agent Thomas McShane recovered $900m of stolen art - from Rembrandts lifted in France, to Van Goghs snatched in Manhattan. But the biggest heist of all left him and his team confounded. And the case remains unsolved to this day...
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The Independent Online

If you take a look at Interpol's list of the top five criminal enterprises in the world, number four might surprise you. Art theft. Interpol, the international police agency based in France, has determined that stealing, copying, and reselling pretty works of art is only exceeded by the much uglier businesses of illicit drugs, arms smuggling, and money laundering.

In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation concurs. My former employer believes that art theft now exceeds $5bn (£2.65bn) a year - and counting.

None of this surprises me. I've spent the past 35 years tracking pilfered paintings across the planet. For 22 of those years, I was the FBI's main art theft undercover agent. Few knew, even within the bureau, because I operated in the shadows buried under multiple aliases.

One of the things I learned early on is that there are two contrasting reasons why art theft and forgery is such a bullish growth industry. The soaring value of classic paintings has combined with a comparatively minuscule legal risk, to create a landscape that has become every criminal's dream job. With the auction price of a single Picasso topping $100m in 2004, the sky is now the limit in this crazy, highly specialised industry.

Yet the legal statutes haven't remotely kept up with the unprecedented temptation to cross over to the dark side.

Someone could snatch the Mona Lisa off the wall of the Louvre in Paris, sell it in New York's Central Park for a cool $350m, get caught a week later, and expect to be given no more than 18 months or so for the "sale and transportation of stolen property". While stealing Leonardo's heavily guarded masterpiece might be an absurd example, what about that Monet the rich guy down the street has in his study? It might only produce a mere $10m, but most people could survive on that.

It's my estimation that every day, thousands of people gaze at the beauty of a stolen painting. They're everywhere, right under our noses: big, framed, lavishly pigmented lottery tickets hanging on walls like the proverbial money growing on trees.

Take my word for it; many stolen paintings are kept in open view, and they could be anywhere. I've seen nearly $300m worth of classics in the oddest places. A Van Gogh at a grimy gas station. A Picasso in a $20-a-night roach motel. A Rubens in the back of a beat-up van. A Rembrandt in the bathroom of a small antique store. Two more Rubenses spinning down from a hotel balcony, plunging to the grass below. You name it...

***

ON 18 MARCH 1990, as Boston's boisterous St Patrick's Day parties were winding down, two men dressed as city police officers pulled off the biggest art heist in modern history. Since then, the ice-cold case has grown into one of the most frustrating mysteries imaginable. Who were the thieves? Who, if anyone, were they working for? Why did they take what they did - 11 assorted artworks worth an estimated $200m in 1990 dollars - and leave behind a wide array of historic masterpieces that might have doubled or tripled the value of their haul? Most of all, where are those 11 irreplaceable paintings, drawings, and etchings today, and why hasn't a single one surfaced in nearly two decades?

In the early morning hours of the day in question, a dark-haired pair of alleged Boston patrol officers, each sporting what were later believed to be fake moustaches, knocked on the office door in the rear of the internationally famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, at 2 Palace Road, Boston, Massachusetts. They informed the security guard who greeted them that they were responding to a call regarding a disturbance in the compound, caused by a marauding group of celebratory teenagers. The story was a ruse to get inside.

The visitors, dressed in authentic police hats and coats adorned with shiny silver badges, asked the security guard if anyone else was working that morning. He responded that his partner was making the rounds in the building. The cops asked him to summon the second guard. When he arrived, the officers announced that they had a warrant for the first security guard's arrest, and proceeded to handcuff them both. "Gentlemen," the officers announced once the guards were secured, "this is a robbery." The security guards were taken to the basement, where they were separated, then elaborately trussed-up with duct tape around their hands, ankles, mouths, chins, and heads. The robbers even taped over the handcuffs, blocking the keyhole. Two additional pairs of handcuffs were produced. They were used to secure the guards to structures in the basement.

Throughout the ordeal, the soft-spoken, apparently unarmed robbers asked the guards if they were comfortable, and if any of the bindings were causing excessive pain. They then took the men's wallets, removed their driver's licences, and informed them that they now knew where they lived. The implication being that the security officers should not go out of their way to help in the subsequent police investigation, or else. "Don't tell anybody anything," one of the robbers said. "If everything goes right, you'll get a nice reward in a year's time." (No such gift was ever reported.)

The Gardner Museum had an elaborate computerised tracking system that noted the time various doors were opened. From the records, the robbers arrived at 1.24am, and spent 24 minutes securing the guards. After that, they immediately travelled to the second-floor Dutch Room Gallery in the maze-like building to begin lifting a very specific group of paintings off the walls. They took Vermeer's The Concert; Rembrandt's A Lady and Gentleman in Black; Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Rembrandt's Self Portrait etching; and then two quizzical works, Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk that for centuries had been attributed to Rembrandt; and even more inexplicably, a drab, 10in Chinese bronze beaker known as a ku from the Shang Dynasty dating to 1200-1100BC. The oil paintings ranged in size from the two large Rembrandts - Lady and Storm - checking in at 4.3ft x 3.6ft, and 5.3ft x 4.3ft respectively, to the tiny Rembrandt etching, which was little more than a postage stamp at 1.75in x 2in. A fourth Rembrandt, a larger and more valuable self-portrait, was anchored tightly to the wall and offered resistance. When the crooks finally pried it down, they realised that it was painted on wood, not canvas, and couldn't be cut from a frame and rolled up. They had to leave it behind. Ruffled and insulted, the great master sat across the room, "watching" as the rest of the event transpired.

After that mixed bag, the duo went to the Short Gallery on the other side of the room and honed in on five extremely quizzical works by Degas: La Sortie de Pesage, a pencil and watercolour on paper; Cortege Aux Environs de Florence, a pencil and wash on paper; Three Mounted Jockeys, a black ink, white, flesh, and rose wash on paper; Program for an Artistic Soirée; a charcoal on white paper; and Program for an Artistic Soirée II, an unfinished version of the previous work.

The above selections have had experts shaking their heads for decades. With the almost unlimited quantity of priceless oils available to them, including Titian's The Rape of Europa, which itself might be worth $300m alone today, why did the thieves ignore the Raphaels and select this bizarre collection of pencils, washes, charcoals and inks from a prolific artist like Degas who flooded the market? Those particular works by Degas are mediums, which can sometimes be purchased for mere thousands on slow days at the neighbourhood auction house.

As if to send a message, or to display an odd sense of humour, the robbers made another astounding choice, taking a bronze, gilded, 9in x 7in metal eagle known as a finial from the top of a Napoleonic flag jutting out of a case. The relic is so insignificant it's usually not included in the list of stolen works - which actually totalled 13 when figuring in the ku and the finial.

The Gardner Museum offered the thieves more than 2,500 pieces of ancient art, including oil paintings, sculptures, furniture, manuscripts, books, silver, photographs, textiles, artefacts, and relics, some dating back 30 centuries, and the pair took a weathered flagpole ornament? After those head-scratchers, the robbers returned to the first floor Blue Room and made a more logical selection, Manet's Chez Tortoni, a small, but traditionally more valuable, oil on canvas that was 10.5in x 13.5in. Having their fill - and leaving more than a billion dollars worth of historic masterworks behind - the duo left the building one at a time at 2.41am and 2.45am, exiting separately for reasons only known to them. The computer records indicated that the pair never bothered to venture to the third-floor galleries where the prized Titian, the Raphaels, and countless other Italian masterpieces hung untouched. Were they unaware that the Titian was up there - in The Titian Room?

***

BECAUSE OF A quirk in the otherwise elaborate security system, the theft wasn't discovered until the morning shift of guards arrived at 8am. They found the security station unmanned, so they called the police. The late-shift crew was then discovered hog-tied in the basement. Although the alarms had engaged, and times were recorded when the works were removed, the museum had only internal signals that did not alert an external police or security company. That notification was supposed to have been accomplished by the manual pressing of a "panic button" at the main security desk. By neutralising the security officers at the start, the knowledgeable robbers had eliminated outside intervention. When the arriving police and security guards checked the facilities, they learned that the thieves had taken the video from the surveillance recorder, turned the first-floor camera away from the security desk, and tore off and removed a computerised printout that reported all the alarm and door engagements.

A disk that held the printed information remained, as did the computer's internal hard drive. That enabled investigators to simply reprint the information that was taken.

It was also determined, to everyone's horror, that some of the paintings, including Rembrandt's Storm and Gentleman had been cut from their frames and stretchers and probably rolled up, which would cause the ancient paint to crack and flake. (A Vermeer, stolen in Brussels in 1971, was not only rolled up, but the thief sat on it in a cab, all but destroying it.)

Taken as a whole, the theft was puzzlingly schizophrenic. On one hand, there was an extensive knowledge of the Gardner's security operation, a solid understanding of art when considering the first three primary targets, and a cleverly devised plan that worked without a hitch. In contrast, there were the baffling subsequent selections, the weird secondary artefact choices, and the confusing attempt to blot out the computer records by taking a printout, but not the disk containing the information. Were the thieves geniuses or dunces? Or, was there an agenda involved that no one has ever figured out?

What about the festive date chosen for the headline-grabbing event? Was the Irish holiday selected in deference to Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, a globe-trotting party girl who opened the grand museum in 1903 on New Year's night?

Even more intriguing, was this a theft that eliminated all the crass monetary values and returned to the very crux of art itself? Meaning, were the thieves working from a childlike Christmas list of things someone simply saw and liked during a casual trek through the museum?

***

THE MEDIA BROUGHT out their biggest headlines, reacting to the intrigue, the drama, the $200m to $300m figure, and the famous names involved. Putting Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and even Napoleon in the same sentence makes for a star-studded cast. As expected, for the general public at least, Govaert Flinck was like the answer to the routine multiple choice question, "Which name doesn't belong in this group?"

Flinck, a 17th-century Dutch technician, was a student of Rembrandt who copied his style so well that many of the Rembrandts in the world are actually Flincks. Even after being included in such lofty company, his paintings aren't wildly popular and sell for five figures when they occasionally appear on the market. Which begs the question: did the thieves really want a Flinck, or did they fail to read the inscription and think it was another Rembrandt? If they were limited by time and carrying ability, why did they choose Flinck over Titian? Or, did they simply like the painting?

The Flinck dilemma aside, the robbery remained huge international news. Everybody was shocked and horrified - everybody except award-winning Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, who stuck up his nose and produced one of the classic art snob dismissals of all time. Positioning himself as the ultimate authority, the bestselling author ripped into the thieves as Neanderthals, the media as ignorant troglodytes, the museum itself for caring a whit about such mostly insignificant pieces, the museum's condition, the museum's security, the police, the French, greedy art auction houses, and even the great artists themselves for producing so much inferior junk.

"It seems quite clear that the thieves had very little idea of what to go after, since the glory of the Gardner Museum is its Italian paintings, starting at the top with Titian's Rape of Europa, regarded by some as the greatest single Italian Renaissance canvas in the US... This was more the Gang That Couldn't See Straight."

This is where I disagree. It's my belief that these thieves, either by their own devices, or working from a specific list, took exactly what they wanted, right down to the silly little eagle on Napoleon's flag.

***

I WAS SUMMONED to Boston on the Monday after the weekend robbery. Walking through the museum, and reading all the reports, I came across two curious items that were potentially revealing. There was a five-minute period just prior to the thieves' arrival in which the computer system was dormant. From 12.39am until 12.44am, the machine recorded no activity. When the system reactivated at 12.44am, alarms indicating a glass break and a fire went off on the fourth floor, a residence area where, according to the computer, the thieves never ventured. The readings were checked by the security guard, deemed a malfunction, and the alarm reset.

That kind of pre-theft distraction was the calling card of both the Irish Republican Army, a band that was noted worldwide for art thefts dating back decades, or its rival loyalist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was starting to follow suit. What was the IRA/UVF doing in America, one might ask? Was this really America, might be the best answer. Boston, like so many US cities, is filled with ethnic pockets that are deeply rooted in the culture and politics of the "old country". Boston is so Irish even some of the Italians speak with a brogue. The city has long crawled with IRA and UVF agents, either hiding out, recruiting, lobbying, or raising money for the cause.

Boston's notorious Irish Winter Hill mob, headed by the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger, has at times wielded more power than the traditional Patriarca Italian Mafia that supposedly controls the city from its headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island. Whitey had strong IRA ties, along with compromised law enforcement officers inside the Boston police department, and, unfortunately, Boston's FBI office. The deadly mob boss, who didn't go on the lam until 1995, could have easily given his IRA pals a pair of authentic Boston police uniforms - or even arranged for a duo of legitimate cops on his payroll to pull off the heist.

Nine years earlier, Martin "The General" Cahill, a Dublin mobster with loose ties to the UVF, hit the famous Sir Alfred Beit collection at Russborough House in Blessington, Ireland. This was the same palatial 18th-century Palladian mansion/museum, robbed by the IRA a decade before. Cahill's gang used a glasscutter to make a hole in a large French window, opened the shutters, deliberately set off the alarm, altered it in some manner so it wouldn't go off again, then hid outside in the grass as the police and security checked it out.

Once the coast was clear, they returned and lifted 18 paintings worth $40m, including a Vermeer and the usual Rubens, Goyas, and Renoirs, along with the same exact Gainsborough, Madame Baccelli, that the IRA had grabbed 12 years earlier.

The matching modus operandi in each case was the alarm tripped within an hour of the thieves' entry. In the Gardner heist, however, there was no indication of how an accomplice could have entered the building clandestinely and scurried to the fourth floor undetected prior to the robbers' official entry at the main security station 40 minutes later. There was, however, an employee who failed a polygraph, quit his job, and didn't bother to return for his last pay cheque. The person denied any participation in the robbery, and no connection beyond his highly suspicious behaviour was ever established.

Residents celebrating St Patrick's Day in the area reported seeing a medium-sized, light-coloured vehicle parked near the museum from 12.30am to 1.15am. Two men were inside that fitted the description of the thirtysomething robbers. The first was about 5ft 10in, medium build, with a shiny fake moustache, short dark hair, and square gold-framed glasses. The second man was taller and heavier, about 6ft 1in, 200lb, with "puffy" collar-length black hair and the same type of fake moustache. They were not, however, described as wearing police uniforms - at least not then.

Continuing my on-site inspection of the castle-like museum, I wondered anew why the grand Titian wasn't taken, and why the ku and finial were. It again seemed like part theft of the century, and part fraternity prank. Looking closer, I noticed a small dent in the wall above the now finial-less Napoleonic flag. The crooks had banged the eagle against the wall in the process of yanking it off, possibly damaging it. That was telling. Not only were they determined to take the curious item, they apparently had a hard time doing so. From a psychological profiling perspective, I reconsidered the possibility that the culprits were real cops. They had acted with the confidence and gumption of men who had worn the badge and blue uniform before, and knew the respect the symbols commanded. A notation buried in a file mentioned that the pair each wore standard black police radios on their hips, live transmitters that crackled with authentic police activity, including the array of codes dispatchers use to designate particular crimes.

The "cops" additionally acted like men who knew their way about a crime scene investigation lab. The FBI CSI types went over the place with a fine-toothed computerised comb and came up with nothing, not a fingerprint, footprint, hair, DNA sample, clothing fibre, nothing. The duct tape was the kind that can be purchased anywhere on the planet with no tracing codes. The handcuffs, surprisingly enough, were nearly as prevalent, available everywhere from security supply stores to S&M sex shops. The robbers operated completely off the CSI radar - a neat trick considering that the security guards said they weren't wearing gloves. If the suspects had outfoxed the lab techs because they were indeed real Boston Blues who knew the score, what a hornet's nest this was going to be. Either way, the disguise was an extremely effective ruse.

***

THE SPECULATION CIRCLED back around to Bulger and/or Ireland's notorious General. Was Cahill in town? That was easy enough to check and dismiss, unless he was travelling under an alias, which he wasn't known to do. In fact, like most mobsters, he was mostly provincial and territorial. Plus, there was no indication that his previous art robberies had brought him anything but the same grief his predecessors quickly discovered - no buyers stepping forward to take a chance on anything so well known. Whoever was responsible, the key to solving it was the same as always - follow the money to the oil.

The law enforcement strategy was for everybody to pound their informants. That was especially true of me, as my sources were directly connected to the art world. The problem was, a $1m reward had them all salivating. Nobody was going to give up their lottery ticket by admitting they didn't know anything. Most didn't even wait until we called, jumping on the phone and informing us that they "might" know something. All they needed, they kept repeating, one con man after the other, was a little up-front flash money to get the ball rolling. The grifters were hustling up a storm as fierce as the one in Rembrandt's missing sea painting.

Needing a new identity to deal with them, I became super 1990s art dealer Thomas Russell, international man of money and action. I put out the word far and wide that I was in the market for Vermeers, Rembrandts, Degas and Manets, baby! I'd even be interested in paying top dollar for a Chinese ku, or a French finial once waved by a general with a severe short guy's complex. That is, if anybody out there just happened to have any of those things.

While waiting for the leads to filter in, I hit the files and read everything I could about New England art thefts. Some of the cases I knew well, like the Fogg Museum coin heist from decades past. I also took refresher courses in the techniques of Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Vermeer in case I had to start inspecting the rash of forgeries that often materialise after a sensational theft. I noted with interest that Vermeer was a tavern owner with lots of kids, two things that probably were instrumental in keeping his production numbers so low.

Of all the tips that flooded in, only three or four were deemed worth pursuing. One pointed to a noted Boston fence who was spreading the word that he had a bead on the Gardner art and could broker the deal. I phoned him as Tom Russell, shady art dealer extraordinaire, and listened as he tried to work me for a $20,000 finder's fee - paid up front. Since he had some credibility with the Boston agents, we agreed to have a sit down at a ritzy Pier 4 restaurant, my treat. When the time came, he never showed. We wrote it off as another attempted hustle.

The unusual no-show was the beginning of a disturbing trend. One of the local agents had some solid contacts with the IRA, and nothing came through with them either. Another Boston agent was in tight with Bulger, who was actually a long-time FBI informant dating back to when he was a street punk. That extremely rare inside connection nonetheless failed to produce any worthwhile information.

I was starting to get a really bad feeling about what was going on - on both sides of the law. With such a wealth of informants, including a top mob boss, how come nobody knew anything about such a major theft? Where was the traditional "mob blessing" required to operate in someone's territory?

***

THAT QUESTION WOULDN'T be answered until a decade later. In 1999, a federal investigation headed by Judge Mark Wolf accused 18 Boston FBI agents and supervisors of handling informants in an illegal manner. That set off one of the worst scandals in bureau history. Special Agent John Connolly, the man closest to Bulger, was subsequently convicted in 2002 of one count of racketeering, two counts of obstruction of justice, and one count of making a false statement to the FBI. He was found innocent of the even nastier charges of leaking information that led to the deaths of three informants.

"Today's verdict reveals John Connolly for what he became, a Winter Hill Gang operative masquerading as a law enforcement agent," said US Attorney Michael J Sullivan. Connolly was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Connolly's supervisor, John Morris, confessed to receiving payoffs, and to leaking information to Whitey about police investigations. He was granted immunity for testifying against Connolly.

Suffice it to say, the informant tips coming into the Boston field office regarding the Gardner theft were no doubt being finely screened. It may also explain why a legitimate source may not have even bothered calling, and why my fence stood me up. It's only natural to assume that one of the main functions of a police officer or a special agent on the mob's payroll is to tip them off regarding the activities of undercover agents.

On the positive side, the lead investigator who caught the case and worked it for more than a decade, Daniel J Falzon, was a squeaky-clean kid of 26 whose father, Frank, was a well-respected San Francisco homicide detective. Falzon was completely out of the loop of the older Connolly and his group of long-time cronies, and was never suspected of any foul play.

"It wasn't a task, it was a passion, and it still is," Falzon told a reporter in the late 1990s. "You get involved in something like this, it's part of your life. It's part of you."

***

AS TIME PASSED, the lid on what happened at the Gardner Museum closed tighter than a Scotsman's wallet. The tips became fanciful. We were told by someone with an Aristotle Onassis/Jackie Kennedy complex that the theft was done on behalf of a Greek tycoon who wanted the art as a gift for his new high-society girlfriend. That lead went nowhere.

Another wild goose chase took me to Canada. I was dispatched to Toronto to meet with this Little Caesar character with a French accent, an Edward G Robinson-looking yoyo who claimed, see, to have an in, see, with the guys who have the goods, see. Little French Caesar set up a meeting with the guys, see, and they didn't show either, see.

The next wild goose led me to New York, where this giant African-American guy tried to sell me a painting purportedly by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the man who invented the Morse code. I didn't even know Morse was an artist. The painting was garbage. Bubba said he'd only tell me about the Gardner theft after we did the Morse code deal. Right. And we'd do The Da Vinci Code deal after that.

After a few weeks of this run-around, I again sensed that something was terribly wrong in Boston, and that nothing was going to get done as long as I stayed there. I retreated to Oklahoma, and worked my national and international sources without having to report to the nosey Boston supervisors.

I narrowed my suspects down to a pair. The first was a man named Brian Michael McDevitt, a noted con man who had attempted to rob similar paintings from the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, a decade earlier. McDevitt, who was living in Boston at the time of the Gardner robbery, had devised an elaborate plan for the New York caper. He and the night manager of the Queensbury Hotel where he was staying, Michael Brian Morey, dressed themselves in Federal Express uniforms, hijacked a Federal Express truck, kidnapped the female driver, knocked her out with ether, and headed to the Hyde. The express mail carrier ruse was going to be their cover to get inside the museum.

The scheme was foiled when they became stuck in traffic, and the Hyde closed before they could get there. Police officers responding to the vehicle theft found an elaborate diagram of the museum in the truck, along with 14 pairs of handcuffs, duct tape, medical tape, and sharp instruments the pair admitted would have been used to cut the paintings from their frames.

Convicted of unlawful imprisonment and attempted grand larceny, they spent less than a year in jail.

McDevitt, who fitted the description of the larger of the Gardner robbers, except for his thinning red hair, was brought in and interrogated. He naturally denied it. His alibi for the night in question bounced, and he refused to take a polygraph. When brought in, he was discovered to be clean-shaven for the first time in eight years. His easy-to-identify bushy red beard was gone, and his short red hair could have been muted under a "puffy" dark wig.

An extremely interesting tid-bit in McDevitt's file was the fact that he was a flag aficionado. In the mid 1980s, while attending the University of Massachusetts, Boston, McDevitt spearheaded an effort to raise money, purchase, and display more than 100 flags around the institution to reflect the diversity of its student body. That sure sounds like a guy who, in mid-robbery, would have taken the time to try and filch a Napoleonic flag and its capping finial. Still, other than a pile of compelling circumstantial evidence, we had nothing that enabled us to hold him.

My second theory involves the IRA or UVF. If they did the job, the paintings more than likely ended up overseas. From there, they were either sold in Japan, or to someone in one of the Arab nations. Back in Boston, the empty frames from the Gardner theft still hang in the museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner collected the valuables herself during her frequent trips to Europe in the 1880s. Her will decreed that nothing would ever be removed from, or added to, her Venetian-style palace. That means the empty spots on the walls, and the dent from the eagle, will remain until they are filled with precisely what was there before.

That should be the policy of all museums. The empty spaces should forever stand as enduring reminders of the beauty, and irreplaceable history, that's constantly chiselled away by growing legions of thieves.

This is an edited extract from 'Loot: Inside the World of Stolen Art' by Thomas McShane and Dary Matera (Maverick House, £8.99)