On March 18, 1990, just after 1 a.m., while the rest of Boston was wrapping up their Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, two art thieves dressed as police officers, knocked on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. What followed was the country’s most famous unsolved art theft.
Decades later, investigators may finally have a new lead.
The tipsters: two local antiques dealers, who—for now—remain anonymous. Boston attorney George Burke, who represents one of them, says he fears revealing their identity because it may cost them their lives.
After the robbery, two museum guards were found tied-up, and 13 pieces of art, at an estimated $500 million value, were gone. The pillaged masterpieces include one of only a few dozen known paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Manet’s “Chez Tortoni,” and several of Rembrandt’s paintings, including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
In the last two and a half decades, the chase to track down the stolen art has led investigators from the eccentric museum—a Venetian-style palace which once served as Mrs. Gardner’s residence—through the rabbit holes of Boston’s organized crime scene to cartels and black art market rings in Europe.
Meanwhile, although he has never faced charges and has repeatedly claimed his innocence, speculation has swirled around the guard who let the officers in: Richard Abath, a 23-year-old jamband-playing music school dropout with long, brown, curly hair. Today, he is a 49-year-old teachers’ aide in Vermont.
This week, investigators may finally have a clue from those pawnshop dealers that could crack the decades-old case, and potentially guide them to the missing art. The tip has also brought up more questions about Abath’s role in the heist and, of course, unearthed more tangled Boston mob stories.
The movement in the case came last week when the FBI released a surveillance video of the night before the robbery to the public. At 12:49 a.m., when the second guard left to do his rounds, Abath let a mysterious man into the museum.
The man can be seen pulling up outside the museum and talking to Abath for just a few seconds, before leaving the camera’s purview. His car, although it cannot be definitively identified, appears similar to the robber’s 1988 red Dodge Daytona getaway car. He used the same parking spot, too.
Special agent-in-charge of criminal matters Pete Kowenhoven said he decided to give the investigation a “cold case review” when he began working for Boston’s FBI bureau in 2013. Tasked with the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings the year he took the job, Kowenhoven didn’t have time to look over the case until recently.
At first, the agency tried to use facial recognition techniques to identify the mysterious intruder, but the video was too old and grainy. Instead, the FBI has turned to the public.
When Burke’s client—and that client’s fellow antique dealing associate—saw the black-and-white video, they both had the same reaction: “That’s the guy!”
They say he works in the antiques trade and currently lives in Florida. They also say the mysterious man likes to brag about his relationship to a pair of notorious Boston art thieves.
“This tip is one of many the FBI has received since the video was released last Thursday,” said FBI spokesperson Kristen Setera. “Investigators are working diligently to follow up on each and every one of them.”
Abath is not responding to reporters’ interview requests, but he has long denied any role in the heist. In a rare interview with NPR earlier this year, he recalled the robbers duct taping his face so he couldn’t see or scream. He says he spent the seven hours waiting for the real police to show up singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to keep his spirits up.
“I was this hippy guy who wasn’t hurting anyone,” he said. “I wasn’t on anyone’s radar and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”
He says he has regretted buzzing in the robbers dressed as police officers his whole life. “It’s like doing penance, it’s always there,” he said.
Opening the doors to the museum at night at all was against Gardner Museum protocol. Abath was reprimanded by the museum for letting the robbers in, even though they were dressed as police. (Abath said they told him they were responding to a disturbance.)
And he was reprimanded again when he was caught on camera checking outside one of the museum doors shortly before the robbery, according to The Boston Globe.
Abath never reported the visit from the mysterious man the night before and when, years later, he was confronted by investigators, he told them he didn’t recall the encounter at all, according to The Boston Globe.
“It seems highly suspect,” Brian Kelly, a former prosecutor who worked the Gardner case, told The Daily Beast. Kelly now works for the law firm Nixon Peabody.
“You think you’d remember someone who came by at the exact same time the day before.”
Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who worked the Gardner case from 2005 to 2008, thinks Abath’s lapse of memory is strange too. “It’s funny that he wouldn’t be able to remember something like that,” says Wittman.
Wittman, who now runs his own private art recovery firm, pointed out that 90 percent of art heists involve an insider accomplice.
The mysterious visit isn’t the only reason Abath caught the eye of investigators.
When the robbers dressed as police entered the building, Abath moved away from the buzzer where he could have sounded an alarm for help. In some of the rooms where the artwork was taken, his were the only footsteps caught on the motion sensors, according to The Boston Globe.
In the wake of the robberies, the FBI doggedly monitored his bank accounts.
Even if Abath was involved in the robbery, he doesn’t have much to fear now. The five-year statute of limitations has expired. At this point, only people currently in possession of the stolen artwork can be charged.
The priority, says Kowenhoven, is to recover the artwork, and not so much to press charges.
The museum has put up a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the recovery of the art in “good condition.”
Returning the art in good condition may not be feasible for all of the artwork. The thieves cut two of Rembrant’s paintings from the frames. Adamant that nothing in the museum be altered, even after her death, Mrs. Gardner had attached the frames to the wall. The empty frames still hang in the museum, a stark reminder of what was taken more than 26 years ago. And, perhaps, as a symbol of hope that they might one day be returned.
Although Burke did not identify the man believed to be in the video for fear of interfering with the investigation, he said that the antiques dealer often bragged about his relationship to the notorious art thief Myles J. Connors Jr.
In 1975 Connors stole another Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak,” after walking into Boston’s Museum of Modern Art in broad daylight and pistol-whipping a guard. He later returned the painting in return for a reduced sentence for another charge.
Connors was in prison at the time of the Gardner heist, too. But in his book, The Art of the Heist, Connors claims a friend visited him in prison, told him they were behind the robbery, and offered to use the paintings as yet another get-out-of-jail-free card. The offer never materialized.
The theory about Connor’s alleged involvement isn’t the only new theory circulating over the past few years.
Wittman, who went undercover to track the stolen art and detailed his account in his book Priceless, believes some of the work is in the hands of Corsican mobsters.
“It’s been 25 years. To assume that the antiques are all sitting together in Florida and Boston—that would be incredible,” he said.
The FBI’s other suspect is a man named George Reissfelder, who died of a cocaine overdose a year after the robbery. Reissfelder’s brother later told agents he thought he saw “Chez Tortoni” hanging over his brother’s bed, according to The Boston Globe.
In his book, Master Thieves, Stephen Kurkjian writes that a man named Robert Donati confessed to New England mobster Vincent Ferrara that he robbed the museum and would try to use the art to get the capo out of jail. Shortly thereafter, Donati was found dead in the trunk of his own car.
The newly released video has led some people to ask questions not only about the robbery, but why it took agents so long to release the video in the first place.
Kurkjian says he’s frustrated the FBI didn’t release this tape in the days after the robbery, and blames the lapse for not having assigned enough agents on the case from the get-go.
“Everybody would have been called up,” says Kurkjian. “And Rick Abath would have had to say, ‘Oh, yeah, let me explain.’”