Did Whitey Bulger Pull Off the Gardner Art Heist for the IRA?
Private detectives on the trail of 13 masterpieces stolen from Boston 30 years ago are looking at what’s left of the Irish group. Others are skeptical of the fantastic theory.
It’s been nearly 30 years since two conniving art thieves dressed up like Boston cops and sweet-talked their way into the city’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after closing hours. Once inside, they handily tied up the museum’s two on duty security guards and carried out the biggest art heist in modern history, stealing 13 masterpieces worth more than $500 million in a rather leisurely 81 minutes.
The heist, which included works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, remains one of the biggest art thefts on record and, three decades later, one of the most perplexing mysteries art detectives have ever tried to unravel. One of the only real leads the FBI has ever acknowledged receiving are some paint chips that were sent by mail anonymously, consistent with the red lake in Vermeer’s “The Concert,” stolen the night of the heist.
For years, it was assumed that the artwork, if still intact, is in the United States, likely part of an underground network being held for eventual ransom or secret sale to rogue collectors of such hidden treasures. But a $10 million reward offered by the museum has not smoked out the culprits or current owners of the art, who are guaranteed by authorities immunity and anonymity if they just turn over the masterpieces.
Thousands of tips have dissolved into false leads over the decades, but recently, two of the biggest names in art recovery have hinted that the paintings just might be in the hands of what’s left of the old Irish Republic Army or IRA. No one agrees just how they got there, if indeed they are there, which has complicated any chance of collaboration among those searching to bring the art home to Boston.
FBI special agent Tim Carpenter, who heads the bureau’s Art Crime Team, gave credence to the theory that has for years been a hushed whisper when he told the Law & Crime website the stolen artworks could “perhaps” be overseas. “I don’t think it is a cold case because we do get a fair amount of information on that case,” he said, though he would not elaborate on how close they may be to a breakthrough.
His veiled “maybe” echoed an announcement Dutch art detective Arthur Brand made this spring, in which the acclaimed private detective said he had spoken directly to members of the IRA who implied that with immunity and the $10 million award offered by the Gardner museum, they would be ready to give up the raided art. “The IRA is not a trustworthy organization,” Brand told The Daily Beast recently. “But the organization is dying and they need to liquidate now more than ever.”
Neither Brand nor Carpenter will give much in the way of proof that the paramilitary group–or what’s left of it–can guarantee they have the goods. And Anthony Amore, the man in charge of the Isabella Gardner Museum’s security, doesn’t buy for a minute that the art is in the hands of the paramilitary group. “The IRA has been mentioned for 29 years,” Amore told The Daily Beast. “But there is zero evidence that the IRA has been involved. Everything points to the art being right here in the United States.”
Amore says that informants, including lead figures of the IRA at the time of the theft, coupled with historical information, leads him to believe the theory is flat wrong. “They would take paintings like this to ransom people or negotiate people out of jail,” Amore says. “They did not do that when they could have.”
One theory about how the IRA could have even possibly received the paintings is tied to James “Whitey” Bulger, the former boss of an Irish-American mob called the Winter Hill Gang that lorded over the South Boston area in the 1970s and ’80s. Bulger, the story goes, may have given the paintings to the IRA as a consolation prize after a shipment of arms to Ireland was intercepted by American police.
Bulger, who was on the run for 16 years before being nabbed in Santa Monica in 2011, was killed in his prison cell last October while serving a pair of life sentences for some 19 murders. His attorneys have said he was ready to negotiate giving up some information about the paintings in exchange for safer prison digs just weeks before he was murdered. He was already an FBI informant on certain matters, but not on the Gardner art, which calls into question whether he was really involved.
Charles Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective who is now a private investigator, believes that Whitey was an IRA sympathizer. He told the Guardian that the gangster “loved to associate himself with the cause, and was involved in arms deals and drugs shipments to the republic.”
Brand, one of the most successful private bounty hunters of lost art, has previously admitted to The Daily Beast that he has a history of making deals with the devil, forging ties with raiders and thieves, penetrating their networks to negotiate the circumstances to bring the stolen treasures home without incriminating the thieves. He recently returned a $28 million Picasso stolen from a private luxury yacht 20 years ago by infiltrating the network that was hiding it. He has had similar success recovering two bronze horses stolen for Adolf Hitler by his Nazi goons to be placed at the threshold of the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, and a string of other Nazi-era stolen art, all earning him the nickname “Indiana Jones of the art world.”
He does not believe that Bulger has anything to do with the theft or a transfer of the art overseas. “At the time of the theft, the IRA was running guns from Boston without Bulger’s knowledge,” Brand says. “Those paintings were tucked into one of the vessels and they are still in Ireland today.”
Amore disagrees, insisting that, whether Bulger was involved or not, the art is still in the U.S. He says Americans are “consumers of stolen art, not exporters of it.”
Brand’s methods—successful as they may be—are not always agreeable to the rightful owners of the art in question. Amore, who has dedicated his career to the return of the Isabella Gardner art, says he doesn’t do deals with thieves, even if it might mean the safe return of the treasures. “Art hunters like Arthur Brand often negotiate with the smugglers and thieves, but is that something you can condone?” he asks. “Anybody that can help us get our art back and acts ethically to do so is welcome, but the idea of paying thieves art is unethical.”
He questions Brand’s proclamation that he has talked to anyone who still has ties to the IRA. “Thieves, or anybody holding the stolen Gardner art, can go through an attorney to get the reward,” he says. “I don’t begrudge Arthur, he has the right to search for it. But there is no reason to reach out to someone in the Netherlands that people holding our art wouldn’t even know.”
Amore believes that the time has come, now nearly 30 years later, for whoever is holding the art to come clean. “Many old cases are solved when someone has the confidence to come forward, isn’t afraid anymore,” he told The Daily Beast. “What happens typically with masterpieces is that they are recovered right away or a long time after, and we have now reached the time when those involved in the actual theft are dead.”
Amore believes that time is on his side and that the art will eventually be recovered when whoever is holding it is ready to give it up. Thirty years is a long time to keep such precious art, and he says he believes the time will soon come when they want to get rid of it. He is not convinced it will be discovered any other way after so long.
“When you are looking for something that is missing for a long time, but an inanimate object, you don’t have the same things on your side as you do when you are looking for a person,” Amore says. “A person has to go out of the house, a painting just sits until it is found.”