Unravelling mystery of world’s biggest art heist – mobsters, IRA and £500m haul

It's gone down in history as being the largest unsolved art crime ever.

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men posing as cops from the Boston Police Department entered the city’s prestigious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The pair tied up the museum security guards in the building’s basement, then stole 13 extremely valuable works of art.

These included Dutch master Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the same painter’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert – believed to be the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world.

Paintings by Degas and Manet were also taken, as well as an ancient Chinese drinking vessel called a Gu which used in rituals.

The FBI valued the haul as being worth a massive half a billion dollars, and over 30 years on the brazen heist remains unsolved.

Now, it is the focus of a new Netflix limited series, This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, which is released on the streaming platform on Wednesday April 7.

It looks at the events of that night, as well as the crime’s rumoured links to the IRA, Italian mobsters and money laundering gangs.

The robbery happened at around 1.20am, when security guard Rick Abath heard the buzzer ring. He says he saw “two of Boston’s finest waving at me through the glass. Hats, coats, badges, they looked like cops.”

They told Abath that they were there to investigate a disturbance, and needed to enter.

As it was the night of St Patrick’s Day, the guard wondered if a drunk person had climbed the fence into the museum’s grounds and it had been reported to police.

After the two men entered, one of them said he had a warrant for Abath’s arrest.

They forced him against the wall, and handcuffed him, then cuffed a colleague before stating their intention to rob the exhibit.

Blindfolding the guards with duct tape, the crooks led them into the basement where they cuffed them to a pipe and workbench.

Then the thieves entered the Dutch Room, where they smashed the glass protecting the paintings and prised them out of their frames. Before leaving, the robbers also took the VHS security camera tapes from the building.

At first, suspicion fell on Abath after it was discovered that he had opened a door leading to the street just a few minutes before the disguised thieves had arrived. However, he claimed it was a regular thing he did to test the building’s alarm system.

He was interviewed by police, but maintained he had nothing to do with the crime.

“I told them as I’ve said a hundred times before and since, I had absolutely nothing to do with the robbers or the robbery,” he said.

Attention then turned to Myles Connor, an infamous art thief from the local area.

But he was already in prison for another crime when the theft took place.

Connor was connected to Bobby Donati, a member of the Mafia who he’d done a different art snatching job with – and one lead was that the theft had been ordered by Italian mobsters.

Another person believed to have possibly been associated with the heist was Irish-American mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, inset, who was an IRA sympathiser.

It was theorised that the paintings had been shipped to Ireland as part of a deal Bulger had made with an IRA-affiliated gang.

Whitey, one of America’s most wanted crime kingpins, was arrested in 2011, but there was no sign of the art.

There was also a theory that the stolen artwork was offered for sale in Philadelphia during the early 2000s by thieves who were members of a criminal organisation called the Merlino gang, who were involved in money laundering and drug dealing.

At one point, the main suspect was David Turner, a crook who had links to the Merlino. In 1999 he was arrested for his role in a foiled plot to rob an armoured truck of $50million.

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After his arrest, Turner was told that he was the chief suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, and that FBI agents had several secret recordings of him discussing the missing art.

However, Turner, who was freed in November 2019, claims he knew nothing of the robbery and was never formally charged.

During the past 31 years, none of the stolen works have surfaced.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is still offering a lucrative $10m reward for information that would lead to the recovery of the artworks.

In This Is a Robbery, it’s suggested that the biggest mystery of all surrounding the crime isn’t that the robbers managed to get away with it, but that nobody has come forward with any concrete leads to claim this reward money.

If the suspects were caught it would be too late to charge them with theft, as it’s been too long since the crime to initiate proceedings under US law.

It has been speculated that the reason nobody has come forward is that the original culprits have since died, either from natural causes or due to a more sinister reason, yet the truth may still be out there.

But until the secret of what happened to the artworks is revealed, the pictures’ frames – which still hang in the museum’s Dutch Room – will continue to remain empty.

This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist is showing on Netflix from today

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