Kurkjian Hopes New Book Can Bring Gardner Museum Treasures Home

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One of the Rembrandt paintings stolen from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum
One of the Rembrandt paintings stolen from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

 

BOSTON — Stephen Kurkjian’s latest book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, released in March, sheds light on the unsolved case of the brazen heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, the single-largest art theft in the world.

The value of the art stolen is estimated to be $300-$500 million.

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On the night of March 18, 1990, two men, dressed as Boston Police officers, knocked on the door of the museum, where a night watchman, against protocol, opened the door. The thieves tied up the two guards on duty and walked out with 13 items. Especially hard hit was the Dutch Masters section, including “The Concert” by Jan Vermeer and three works by Rembrandt, including “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” his only seascape. Also stolen were five sketches by Edgar Degas and an Eduard Manet portrait.

The Gardner is a venerable Boston institution and the second largest privately-owned museum in the country. The building is a replica of a Venetian palazzo, almost matching in beauty the art it contains, which was collected by the museum’s namesake.

Kurkjian, an award-winning journalist who retired from the Boston Globe, spoke last week with great admiration of Isabella Gardner herself. “She wanted to inspire an American tradition,” inspiring viewers to create art.

“I am trying to stir the consciences and hearts of those who know something,” he said. “We are going to get them back. I am convinced.”

The characters in the book are straight out of “Goodfellas” and “Godfather.” Mobsters in New England, high and low, seem to have played a part in the brazen theft, which took place under the cover of darkness. Time and again, police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which took over the investigation from the Boston Police, has followed tips which have led them to mobsters throughout the East Coast, but so far, the paintings have proven to be elusive. Pieces of the puzzle have been discovered, but the authorities have not been able to connect them in such a way that would lead them to the paintings.

The robbery, he said, “is one for the ages.”

Kurkjian received unprecedented access to the mobsters, by proving his integrity and genuine curiosity in the case. Robert Gentile, one of the suspects who has been under a microscope, had refused to speak to other journalists but agreed to talk to Kurkjian for three days in a two-week period. Gentile had been incarcerated when he told an undercover informant that he would give the person access to the paintings in exchange for drugs. “The feds caught him in a criminal act” and sent him to prison, he said.

“Because I had shown him my interest in the Gardner museum, only reporter he had spoken to,” he said.

Kurkjian said that in the past decade, he has only focused on two stories, the Gardner theft and the Gesaria picture (“Kurkjian Research into Gesaria Photo Brings Genocide into Focus,” May 2, 2014, Armenian Mirror-Spectator). The latter is the story of 50 or so Armenian men who had been found guilty in 1915 by Turkish courts of various trumped-up charges, awaiting death.

The two stories, Kurkjian said, share a thread. “The transcendent issue that I focus on in talk after talk is patrimony,” he said. The enormity of the loss, he said, is one he can relate to because of the huge cultural losses the Armenians experienced in the Ottoman Empire.

“At the core, in both the issue is loss and it came to me that we as a people lost everything in those hills. What was taken away was our heritage and the sources of our heritage, art and music.”

In the Gardner case, the issue is “part of an epic loss.”

Kurkjian said that the issue was also close to him because his father, Anoosh Kurkjian, was also an artist.

When he spoke to French and Dutch detectives who were working on other art thefts, he said they asked him what the city of Boston was doing regarding the theft, in addition to the work of the FBI and Boston Police. When told that indeed the city had not official role, they were surprised. When a similar theft had occurred in Paris, they said, the city officials as well as the government and law enforcement teamed up as the loss was a mark on the city.

It is almost that the community has not been a part of the issue and for the FBI, the issue is not a priority. Art theft, he said, is seen as a victimless crime. It is imperative, he added, that the community understands that what was taken belonged to the world. “What we lost was the only Vermeer in New England and the only seascape by Rembrandt,” he said.

There is little question that the theft was ordered by the mob possibly to gain leverage for the release of an inmate. “You need to have them understand that no good can come of this and that your grandchildren wont’ get to see them. We need to put [Boston] Mayor [Martin] Walsh and Cardinal [Francis] O’Malley in front of the empty frames” and take their pictures.

The book, a page-turner and a fascinating read, is infuriating in parts. The board of the Gardner museum, at that time, is shown as being tone deaf to the changing needs of the museum. They spent little on security, despite getting warnings from the Museum of Fine Arts that there might be a heist planned for one of the two museums. The board also did not invest in temperature control and as a result some pictures would “sweat” in the sweltering, humid summers of Boston and suffer from the effects of the cold in the bitter winters. Kurkjian’s style, combining a wealth of details yet organized in a digestible way, makes the book a quick read.

Kurkjian is currently on a book tour. He will speak on May 12 at 7 p.m. at the  Westwood Library; May 15, 5-8 p.m., St. James Armenian Church, Watertown; May 19, 7 p.m. North Reading Library; May 20, 6 p.m. – Truro Public Library; May 28, 7 p.m. – Boston Teachers Union; June 5, 12:30 p.m. – Boston Literary Lunch Break, South Station concourse; June 6, 2 p.m. – Barnes & Noble, Burlington; June 15, 7 p.m. – Brookline Booksmith; June 17, 6:30 pm – Middleborough Library and June 27, 2 p.m. – Newport (RI) Public Library.

There is a $5 million reward for more information regarding information leading to the paintings.

Master Thieves is available at all major bookstores and Amazon.

 

 

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