Diving into a 25-year-old mystery, writer Stephen Kurkjian reveals secrets behind Gardner Museum Heist

Vermeer, The Concert 1658-1660

The Concert, Vermeer 1658-1660

By Ayah Awadallah

on March 18, 1990, Boston made history.

While the city was occupied with St. Patrick’s Day revelry, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was being raided by two thieves dressed as policemen, who tricked their way past guards and stole $500 million worth of fine art.

Three Rembrandts. A Vermeer masterpiece. Works by Edouard Manet, Govaert Flinck and Edgar Degas. All gone.

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633.

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633.

Twenty-five years later, their empty frames still hang on the museum’s walls. And one writer has some interesting theories behind the greatest art theft in history.

In his new book, Master Thieves, Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian — who spent two decades investigating the heist — reveals a story of two criminal gangs, a battle for control of Boston’s underworld, and a motive for the robbery that might have been one crime boss’ ticket out of federal prison.

In a recent visit to UMass Lowell, Kurkjian talked to students about his new book and the unsolved mystery behind Boston’s lost art.

In 2013, the FBI received a tip from a widow in Maine about where some of the stolen paintings could be. She told them that her late husband may have given two or three of the paintings to a friend, Robert Gentile, who lived in Connecticut.

Kurkjian's new book on the world's greatest heist is available now.

Kurkjian’s new book on the world’s greatest heist is available now.

The FBI also knew Gentile — as an aging Hartford mobster.

While the FBI was searching the Wise Guy’s property, Gentile’s son gave away news about a mysterious hiding place in the shed.

Gentile, said Kurkjian, had allegedly dug a ditch under the floorboards of the shed in his backyard, where he hid large plastic bins deep within it.

But that strand of hope was cut once the FBI looked in the bins and found them empty.

Gentile, who is 79-years-old and resigned to a wheel chair, may be the FBI’s last link to the theft.

Author and Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian.

Author and Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian.

Organized crime has turned art theft into a lucrative $6-$8 billion dollar-a-year business, said Kurkjian. And a public system that turns a blind eye to the issue keeps the black market booming.

“The state has no system,” he explained. “The galleries have no system. There is no public system to check the ownership of these paintings. Because of this failure, we have a big black market. This whole business is populated by opportunists who are going to give into the larceny in their hearts…and we depend on this system to make sure that the little larceny in their hearts doesn’t cause us big damage.”

The Isabella Stewart Gardner heist was not the only theft Kurkjian came across in his career.

In 1978, eight paintings were robbed from a private home in the Berkshires while Herbert Bakwin and his wife were away for Memorial Day weekend.

Lady and a Gentleman, Rembrandt, 1633.

Lady and a Gentleman, Rembrandt, 1633.

Paul Cezanne’s still-life, “Bouteille et Fruits” was one of the paintings that was taken off the walls of the Bakwin residence. Kurkjian helped in the recovery of Cezanne’s painting that was languished in the private home of the attorney, Robert Mardirosian, for twenty years until it was discovered in his attempt to sell the painting in London.

“He got involved in trying to hide and take advantage to make money off of this stolen exchange because in this world, they believe that there are no controls, that they can just get away with it,” said Kurkjian.

While the Cezanne painting was successfully recovered, the FBI is still offering a $5 million reward for the recovery of the paintings stolen from the Gardner museum.
But Kurkjian says it will take more than money to return the paintings. He asserts that what is needed is a feeling of responsibility and commitment by the public.

“There are people who know pieces of the story, people who have heard through family or through the associated second, third or fourth-hand. It is those people who have to be convinced,” he said. “This is not about jewelry, this is not about stocks, this is about works that can evoke emotion. That’s why it’s a special story. And it’s not mine, but our story. Because it’s your kids and grandkids who should get to see these artworks.”

Learn more about writer Stephen Kurkjian, and order his book here.

Ayah Awadallah is a HOWL intern, and a graduate of UMass Lowell’s Class of 2015. Drop her a line: hello@howlmag.com

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