BOSTON — Now that authorities believe they know who stole $500 million worth of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the largest art heist in U.S. history, what are the chances they’ll actually recover the stolen works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Manet after 23 years?
Surprisingly good, art recovery experts say.
Christopher Marinello, general counsel for The Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that keeps a database of stolen and missing artwork, recently recovered a Matisse oil painting stolen from a Stockholm museum in 1987.
“A quarter of a century is not that unusual for stolen paintings to be returned,” Marinello said. “Eventually they will resurface. Somebody will rat somebody else out. It’s really only a matter of time.”
The FBI announced Monday that it knows but is not disclosing the identities of two men who posed as police officers and stole 13 works of art from the museum in 1990. The theft remains the largest art heist in U.S. history.
Bob Wittman, a retired FBI agent from Philadelphia who specialized in art crimes, said he helped recover a set of seven Norman Rockwell paintings stolen from a Minneapolis museum in 1977. The paintings were found in Rio de Janeiro in 2001. Wittman said he also helped recover an original copy of the Bill of Rights that had been stolen more than 130 years earlier.
“I think that the chances are that if they still exist, there’s a 95 percent chance they are going to get the paintings back,” Wittman said.
“At some point, they are going to come back to market. Whoever is holding them illicitly is going to get old. An heir or a child is going to find it and try to sell it.”
The FBI, which made its announcement on the 23rd anniversary of the heist, also launched a new publicity campaign aimed at generating tips on the whereabouts of the artwork, including a dedicated FBI website on the heist, video postings on FBI social media sites and digital billboards in Connecticut and Philadelphia. They also re-emphasized a $5 million reward being offered by the museum for information leading to the return of the artwork.
Damon Katz, a spokesman for the FBI’s Boston office, said tips were already coming in Tuesday. He would not say how many.
“We are analyzing them and we will act on those as appropriate,” he said. “The goal is not to generate the largest number of tips, but to generate the best tips that will lead us to the art.”
Richard DesLauriers, an FBI agent in Boston, said investigators believe the thieves belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. They believe the art was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region in the years after the theft and offered for sale in Philadelphia a decade ago. After that, the FBI does not know what happened to the artwork, DeLauriers said.
Empty frames still hang on the walls of the museum as a reminder of the loss of precious works of art, including “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer and several Rembrandts, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” and “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” his only seascape.
The statute of limitations has expired on crimes associated with the actual theft. But prosecutors say anyone who knowingly possesses or conceals the stolen art could still face charges.