Chasing Its Tail: The FBI’s Blundering Gardner Museum Heist Investigation

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Sometimes the FBI is as afraid of the truth as Count Dracula feared a crucifix. Twice in a little over a year the FBI has come out and pretended that it is making progress on its investigation into the Gardner Museum heist. It isn’t but it won’t admit it. It has been stuck on the idea that it was pulled off by some local hoodlums and has been running down blind alleys ever since it decided it was a local job. Had it approached the case in the beginning as one of professional thieves who were intent on specific paintings it might have come a lot farther in its investigation than it presently has done.

But the Boston FBI of 24 years ago, that is in 1990 when the sun shone brightly on all that it did and we had no idea Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi, two vicious hoodlums with blood on their hands, were Top Echelon Informants, was captured by the Myles Connor syndrome. Myles, was a master art thief. He has written a book about his exploits.

My last encounter with him was when we conducted a drug raid in Dorchester in a second floor apartment. Yes I know I worked out of Norfolk County but sometimes our wiretaps would lead us into other jurisdictions. Well in this apartment we found a closet that was boarded up. We took down the boards and found among other things the first page of the Massachusetts charter that had been stolen from the state archives.  The young lady who occupied the apartment said all the stuff in the closet belonged to Myles. He was apparently holding it to get himself out of a jam which was his usual stock in trade, you know, “I’ll give you the charter, you give me a light sentence.”

So with Myles as its boogie man, he had tormented the FBI for years, the FBI figured the thieves were local. Here’s a list of the 19 local hoodlums the FBI got itself hung up on. It’s a who’s who of the Boston gangsters sans Mafia. It’s a typical FBI myopic look at crime when it doesn’t have an informant.

In its latest outing of itself in the Gardner heist it pretended its investigation was going along swimmingly. Wouldn’t it be nice if it just came out and said: “look folks, we don’t have a clue who did this heist, but if anyone can help us find out we’ve got a cool five million dollar reward for the return of the paintings.” For the FBI to do that it would have to admit it is not infallible which it cannot do; for outside of North Korea the FBI is the only government agency that has a perfect record. It found that all the more than 150 shootings done by its agents over the past few years every one was justified and proper. A 100% record — I guess the record continues with the Todashev shooting by the agent out on a tax free disability pension from a city of $52,000 a year while working full time for the FBI. I guess it was knowing of his disability that he felt it necessary to put a few extra slugs into Todashev as he was falling to the ground.

Why the FBI keeps recycling the Gardner Museum story after the excellent article in Boston Magazine by Michael Blanding in 2003 is a mystery. Nothing has changed in 11 years. As Blanding’s articles show the FBI is running in circles. Blandings by the way is scheduled to come out with a new book, The Map Thief . Judging from his thoroughly researched article in Boston Magazine which was aided by his willing expenditure of shoe leather, I’d recommend that book, I’ll want to read.

Really, though, what I find amazing about all of this is that next year on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gardner heist the FBI will come out with the same story as it has in the past and the media will treat it as something new and tell us how the FBI is making wonderful progress. No media outlet, except one or maybe two, will remember it’s the same old song and dance.


3 thoughts on “Chasing Its Tail: The FBI’s Blundering Gardner Museum Heist Investigation

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  2. The Mafia has a long history of stealing art. Probably the most well-known was the theft in the story below. People I know in Palermo claim that it was stolen on orders of Toto Riina, and was eaten by pigs when he thought better of trading it for leniency if charged with one of his innumerable crimes.

    I suspect the Gardner artwork is long gone by now, whether to a barnyard or to some oil-rich sheik’s private collection.


    The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (also known as The Adoration) is a painting believed to have been created in 1609 by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio. Recent acquisitions link the painting to that commissioned by Fabio Nuti in April 1600, and thus sent from Rome to Palermo.

    It was stolen on October 18, 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily.

    The painting, which hung above the altar, was large, measuring almost six square metres (actual size 268 cm x 197 cm – 8’6″ x 6’5″). Probably because of its size, it was removed from its frame by the thief or thieves (two suspected) before being taken out of the church. After it was stolen, the Oratory was pillaged of other art, along with choir stalls of carved and gilded wood and benches inlaid with precious woods and mother of pearl.

    The local Sicilian Mafia are generally considered to be the prime culprits in the theft although nobody actually knows who committed the crime. The whereabouts of the work remain unknown to this day. Rumours of its destruction during the theft, or subsequently in a 1980 earthquake, have circulated from time to time as has the notion that the masterpiece is now hidden abroad. In 1996, Francesco Marino Mannoia, an informant and former member of the Sicilian Mafia, claimed he had stolen the painting as a young man on the orders of a high-ranking mobster, but other sources say it was stolen by amateurs and then sold on to various Mafiosi; at one point it is said to have ended up in the hands of Rosario Riccobono, who was killed in 1982, after which it passed on to Gerlando Alberti.In 2009 Gaspare Spatuzza, a former Mafia figure turned police informer, claimed that he was told in 1999 that the painting was stolen for a private collector but had been destroyed by rats and pigs while hidden in a farm outbuilding and the remains burned.

    1. Henry:

      I don’t recall the Mafia in New England or in the U.S. being interested in art heists. It avoided them not wanting it to be too obvious it was an evil force. It may have happened in Italy but wasn’t a US thing. I agree with you that the art work is long gone. I’d think it was a professional job by expert thieves who were hired by an intermediary working for some big buck guys. I’d expect the theives were quietly eliminated. But I don’t see owning a great piece of art work unless I can display it. That’s the problem with my theory because if I had a great painting by one of the masters I’d want to brag about it and let people see it. Of course that would bring on another problem, I’d have to worry about it, perhaps someone would steal it. If they were taken as bargaining chips that makes littles sense now because 25 years has passed and the need for bargaining would have arisen much sooner than now. Perhaps you are right in speculating that they have been destroyed because if taken by gangsters they were hidden in such a way that they were destroyed and lost their value. A great mystery that will continue on as the FBI chase after guys that owned an auto repair shop in Dorchester who dealt mainly in drugs.

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