When the FBI made their surprise visit to the elderly couple who lived just a couple of blocks from the Pacific ocean, they must have been delighted to find a stash of $800,000 dollars cash and an arsenal of 30 firearms. For the Feds, the haul was a useful illustration that, despite hiding in plain sight for many years, alleged mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was rich and ruthless. However, art lovers round the world will be disappointed that Whitey and longtime ladyfriend Catherine Greig -‘the Gaskos‘, as they were known locally – didn’t have a Vermeer hanging above the bed or a Rembrandt in the sitting room. Not even a Degas sketch or two in the loo.
Asked by the judge if he’d read the charges, contained in 200 page document and topped off with 19 murders, Whitey simply shrugged and replied in a thick Boston accent “I know them all anyways”. But does the alleged Irish-American gang boss also know what happened to the $500m haul of artworks that were snatched from the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the early hours of 18th March 1990, just as St Patrick’s Day celebrations were winding down?
There’s no direct evidence to prove that Whitey ordered the world’s biggest ever art heist, but it’s unlikely he would have simply sat back and admired the audacity and success of the job. As alleged leader of the notorious Winter Hill gang, surely Bulger would have wanted a piece of the action?
As crime scenes go, it has got to be one of the most beautiful. The Dutch Room on the first floor of the Gardner Museum in Boston is lined with green silk wallpaper, from terracotta cobbled floor to oak timbered ceiling. There’s a Rubens over there, a Van Dyke on the far wall. But it’s the empty frames that immediately catch the eye.
An ornate gilded rectangle now frames nothing but green wallpaper, but it once held ‘Storm On The Sea Of Galilee’, Rembrandt’s only known seascape. And, next to the window, there is an easel on which was propped The Concert, one of only 36 Vermeer paintings known to exist.
Both masterpieces were cut from their frames and disappeared, along with two other works by Rembrandt, five sketches by Degas, a Manet painting, a landscape by Flink and – bizarrely – a bronze finial from a Napoleonic battle flag.
The Gardner robbery represents not only the biggest art heist but also the largest single theft of private property of all time. None of the artworks has ever been seen again.
Anthony Amore, the director of security at the museum, told me he spends a huge amount of time staring at the empty frames.
“If you were a homicide detective, you’d go to the scene and once the bodies were removed you’d see the taped outline of the person on the floor,” Amore explains. “I come in here every day and these are my taped impressions.”
The reason the frames remain on the walls is due to Mrs Gardner herself. An avid 19th Century collector, she scoured the auction rooms of Europe picking up masterpieces with the help of her personal shopper, esteemed art historian Bernard Berenson. She curated the museum personally and decreed in her will that nothing should ever be moved. Every frame hangs exactly where she hung it, every ornament exactly where she placed it.
Although Vermeer’s The Concert is probably the world’s most valuable single stolen artwork – estimates value it at around £200m if ever sold – the Gardner Museum holds an even greater treasure. But at nearly seven feet (2.1m) across, Titian’s The Rape of Europa was probably too big for the swag bag.
Dressed as Boston cops and sporting false moustaches, the thieves spent well over an hour in the Gardner galleries after handcuffing the hapless guards – both young music students doing part-time work – in the basement.
The Vermeer and the Rembrandt were obvious targets for any thief with a rudimentary grasp of art history. But the decision to unscrew five Degas sketches from the wall of a gallery is one that has perplexed every investigator who has worked on the case.
According to Charley Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective turned private investigator, the key to the crime is the time it took place.”It may technically have been 18 March 1990 but it was just after midnight as St Patrick’s Day celebrations were still going on. And that’s a big, noisy night in an Irish city like Boston,” says Hill.
As an undercover detective, it was Charley Hill who led the sting operation that recovered Edward Munch’s painting The Scream, stolen from the National Museum of Norway in 1994. Hill has been following a network of leads, many provided by underworld contacts. He says they all add up to one name – the Irish American mob boss who was finally arrested this week after 16 years on the run.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was on the FBI’s most wanted list – alongside another fugitive who was recently revealed to have been hiding in plain sight – Osama Bin Laden. Bulger had a $2m bounty on his head and there was a note on the Bureau website pointing out that he’s wanted for 19 murders, has a violent temper and carries a knife. There was nothing on the FBI website about Vermeer, Rembrandt and the others.
So why would Whitey have wanted the paintings? Charley Hill believes that – even if Bulger did not order the heist originally – he would have muscled in and taken control of the haul soon after.
“He’s never been interested in the sale of them, he’s interested in using them as barter,” says Hill. Offering up the long lost art might just buy him “a softer pillow and a better view” in jail.
Hill’s investigations have led him to remote villages in the Republic of Ireland, where – according to his sources – Whitey sought refuge and “laid down” the Gardner art. Since then, Hill believes, the paintings have been looked after by criminals who owe a debt to Bulger.
FBI Special agent Jeffrey Kelly confirms that Whitey Bulger is on his list of suspects but won’t reveal whether he concurs with Hill’s theory.
21 years on, the Gardner heist remains one of the great crime mysteries. But – with the theft of genuine masterpieces – it is also an act of appalling cultural vandalism and an artistic tragedy.
Multiple murder, extortion and racketeering will doubtless take priority when the Feds, the lawyers and the Boston judge start questioning Whitey Bulger. But, maybe a quick word about Vermeer, Rembrandt and co. could get Bulger talking. And maybe – just maybe – those frames in the Gardner museum will be filled once again.