Q&A

Was History's Greatest Art Theft an Inside Job? The Creators of the "Last Seen" Podcast on Investigating the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

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Was History's Greatest Art Theft an Inside Job? The Creators of the "Last Seen" Podcast on Investigating the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
The Dutch Room in The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR

Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the leading American art collectors of the late 1800s, bequeathed her Venetian style mansion to the public upon her death in 1924, with the stipulation in her will that nothing in the permanent collection be significantly altered. After a lifetime of collecting, it only took 81 minutes for two men to shatter her dying wish. On March 18th, 1990, they stole 13 works of art—valued at a combined $500 million—from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, making the heist the largest recorded property theft in history.

The two burglars, who were posing as police officers, were buzzed into the museum at 1:24 a.m. by one of two security guards on duty that night, Rick Abath. After handcuffing Abath and the other guard to pipes in the museum’s basement, and binding their hands and feet with duct tape, the thieves calmly collected some of art history’s most coveted paintings like it was just another day at the office.

From the Dutch Room they took Rembrandt’s The Storm of The Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, cutting them both out of their frames. Also stolen were Vermeer’s The Concert and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with Obelisk, which they removed from their frames as well. They also grabbed a Chinese bronze gu dating back to the Shang Dynasty. In the Short Gallery, they snatched a bronze eagle finial and five Edgar Degas’ sketches. The robbers’ exact movement is evident through pieced-together motion sensor data.

Photo of the Dutch Room via Jesse Costa/WBUR.

But the biggest mystery in this case involves the 13th artwork stolen that night: Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni. The painting was removed from the Blue Room (the only work taken from the first floor), but there was no alarm triggered. According to the motion detector records, the only footsteps in the Blue Room that night were Rick Abath’s, patrolling through at 12:27 a.m. and again at 12:53 a.m. Could the heist have been an inside job?

All of these juicy yet devastating details were unpacked this fall, on the true-crime podcast Last Seen, presented by WBUR (the NPR radio station licensed to Boston University) and The Boston Globe. The 10-episode series dives into the ongoing effort to recover this priceless art, with first-ever interviews and unprecedented access. Spoiler alert: none of the 13 artworks have been recovered. But Last Seen takes listeners on a journey that provides convincing evidence as to who was most likely involved—weaving together a patchy narrative with a almost unbelievable cast of characters including members of the mafia and coke-addled musicians. We caught up with the podcast’s consulting producer (and author of Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist) Stephen Kurkjian, and one of its senior reporters, Jack Rodolico, to get their take on the crime. 

 Photo of Last Seen producer Stephen Kurkjian and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico. Image via Jesse Costa/WBUR.

What initially sparked your desire to create Last Seen? After all of these years, why revisit this case in a podcast format, and why now?

Rodolico: I believe it started with Steve (Kurkjian). He went to WBUR to give a talk on the heist and people there were familiar enough with the story, some people had reported it, but there was this overwhelming feeling that there’s really still something there. And why now? Because the case is still unsolved. So long as this case is unsolved it is always a good time to talk about it, because the mystery just deepens over time. There’s still not a whole lot of clarifying information out there, and every rock overturned raises more questions.

Kurkjian: That’s exactly right Jack. The Boston Globe editor, Brian McGrory, and the general manager of WBUR, Charlie Kravetz, had been thinking about podcast opportunities. After throwing ideas back and forth, they decided on the best story out there for Boston, and that’s the Gardner heist. I was his next call because I’ve been reporting on it for a long time. So I went to WBUR to give a talk and they really loved it. As Jack said, it’s an incredibly compelling mystery. But we cannot just focus on the mystery, we’ve got a responsibility to get these masterpieces back, and every time I say that it seems to get a response. So that was my personal reason for wanting to do a podcast. I’ve listened to podcasts for several years, and I know their appeal to a wholly different audience. I knew a podcast would reach different people, who might not know this story on a national, or international, level.

Image via Jesse Costa/WBUR. 

The story has some great “characters”: wanted members of the mafia, a mushroom-tripping musician security guard, a rock-star turned infamous art thief, and more. Do you have a favorite character?

Kurkjian: There are so many characters: Bobby Luisi, a guy right out of Central Casting as far as mob figures go; Marty Leppo and Ryan McGuigan, real fast-talking lawyers and tremendous criminal defense attorneys, who each has his own take on the case. Or the former (now retired) undercover FBI agent, David Nadolski—who made a real effort to come up with a good lead on this case by befriending an undercover informant, Anthony “Tony” Romano (now the late Anthony Romano). The partnership between agent and informant is a remarkable twist that I still marvel at, and if I have to pick favorites, it’s the two of them. You really got some terrific information on the insiders of the auto repair shop, TRC Auto Electric in Dorchester, where the Feds absolutely believed the scheme was hatched.

Rodolico: I’m going to distance myself from the word “favorite” per se because some of the people I find really interesting are also convicted murderers, and people that are not necessarily remorseful of the crimes they committed. But I was most interested in individuals who gave us the most insight into the case, and primarily, into the FBI’s investigation because it’s very opaque. For me, the individual who revealed the most about the FBI’s case was Robert Whittman. He only saw a narrow slice of it—since he worked on one aspect of the case for roughly two and a half years out of a 28-and-a-half-year investigation—so by his own admission, he had a very limited view. But he gave us a wide-open window into one of the most crucial moments of the investigation, when there was a reasonable belief that they could recover the art. Whittman was the guy in the middle of it. He was fascinating to me because he worked side-by-side with the Boston FBI. We couldn’t find many FBI agents, current or former, who were willing to talk to us, so it was invaluable having someone like Whittman who really saw how the whole thing worked. He gave a really candid interview about his criticisms of how the FBI screwed something up.

Bobby Luisi. Image via wbur.org. 

What is the deal with Rick Abath, the security guard? How have people not pressed him harder for details?

Kurkjian: [laughs] You know, I talked to Rick for the first time 15 years after the theft, and I came away convinced that he was just a happenstance player in the whole thing. But as years have gone by, I’ve gotten far more suspicious about his activities that night. Also, the more suspicious I get, the more distanced he has become from me—which might be a good indication as well. Whenever I needed Abath, he wouldn’t return my phone calls or emails. Rick was openly critical of the museum’s security system, and so it made sense to me that he may have unintentionally shared something important with the wrong person. The bad guy world is very opportunistic, and if they think that they can get a piece of information about a place to steal from, from an insider, they will do everything they can. As years have gone by though, knowing that he had a bit of a swagger about him and that he used cocaine, he may have said the wrong thing to a person intentionally. He did pass a lie detector test though.

But as Jack [Rodolico] said, the FBI was completely negligent in how they’ve conducted their investigation into him. When I talked to him in 2013, he said that they hadn’t reached out to him since 1990 and then again in 2010. Twenty years! They let him go for twenty years without questioning him again? That just shows that the FBI hasn’t been as ambitious and creative on this case as they needed to be.

Former Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum security gaurd Rick Abath. Image via wbur.org.  

There were a lot of surprising things about this story.  I was surprised by how lax the museum’s security was. I was surprised by how some mobsters were willing to admit to the crime (even though they weren’t involved). I was surprised how many leads were left un-investigated. What were some aspects of this case that surprised you the most?

Rodolico: I think the thing that is so surprising is that even the best suspects aren’t great suspects. We always have to admit that we don’t know what the FBI has—we don’t know what interview they have with these guys, what prior information, or what a confidential informant told them. But by the FBI’s own admission, they’ve never had a proof of life sighting of any of the art. And the names that have been floated in the press, and that people have confirmed to us, are definitive persons of interest to the FBI; they’re almost all only connected to the crime second- or third-hand. Before I was a journalist, I worked in ecology and was often outdoors looking at animals. There are different layers to types of animal sightings. For example, if you see an animal it’s the best kind of sighting, but if you see a print you know maybe it was here, maybe it wasn’t. So I feel like the suspects are all steps removed from really tangible hard evidence, and that means that the artwork is steps removed from tangible hard evidence. Is that because the FBI missed something? Maybe. Or maybe this was always going to be a total mystery. Maybe no matter how hard you look at this, it was always going to be this difficult to solve. I just don’t know. I just know that even the best suspects aren’t good suspects.

 Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn, Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Image via Daily Art Magazine. 

Kurkjian: I would counter with this: when the FBI loses evidence that they want to do further DNA testing on—which is something that The Boston Globe reported on last year—that’s a terrible blow to the bureau’s reputation and to furthering this case. Jack used the phrase “even the best suspects aren’t good suspects.” What that means is that the FBI hasn’t had a shred of evidence that shows that any of the con men who have approached them have accessed the paintings, or has access to the artwork. And that’s remarkable: that in 29 years they still haven’t had what’s called a “proof of life sighting,” which would be a photograph or a remnant of any of the art. What are we to make of that? It’s a terribly frustrating situation, and a reason that I came forward with the idea of a social media campaign to get Boston more interested in this crime as a loss, not just as a mystery.

Boston is a unique city with a specific character. How do you think the location of this crime has influenced its investigation?  

Kurkjian: I think it’s made it more important. Boston is an academic community and cultural hub, and to think that these masterpieces have been stolen from us just deepens the sense of loss. This is not just another museum or a gallery catering to the multi-millionaires. It’s here in the center of the city, a mile away from Fenway Park. It’s a place that everyone goes to and everyone knows about. Isabella Stewart Gardner did not want this museum open for the cultural elite; she wanted this for all of us. That’s why she made it free of charge and donation only. And that really needs to be emphasized when reaching out to the bad guy world, to say, “she wanted it for your kids as well as ours. She wanted all of our kids to appreciate it, so help us get this stuff back.”

We as Bostonians have a responsibility to these masterpieces—they were ours. Two years ago, after the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons, Tom Brady’s game shirt went missing. There were front-page headlines and torch light parades around the city to try and find it; people were seriously concerned. I said—wait a second, you’ve got parades for Tom Brady’s t-shirt when you’ve got Rembrandt's only seascape and the only Vermeer that was ever in New England missing! Let’s pay attention to that instead, and find a way of getting it back.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, image via wbur.com.

In episode 10, ‘Last Seen’ Live, we get to hear your favorite theories on what happened to the stolen art. Do you have any favorite recovery theories? If the art is going to resurface almost 30 years later, how do you think it will happen?   

Rodolico: I’m not making a prediction; I don’t want to predict how and when it comes back... But I do believe that the most likely scenario, at this point, is that the artworks will be happened upon rather than deliberately found. For example, like the missing de Kooning painting, worth $160 million, that was recently found in New Mexico behind the bedroom door of the deceased homeowner. There’s a pretty good chance that’s how it’s found because that is not uncommon in cases where an important painting is gone for more than 20 years.

I went to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum recently and it was extremely crowded. Do you know if the museum’s seen more visitors as a result of the podcast? And more generally, how do you hope this podcast makes an impact?

Rodolico: I really don’t know if it’s made any impact on the museum itself. How do I hope it has an impact? In an ideal scenario, somebody out there who knows something hears the podcast and is inspired to come forward. But that is very unlikely. To the shock of many people in Boston, I don’t think that this is a story that’s widely known. So I do think that there is a merit to just letting people know that Rembrandt's only seascape is gone, and that one of only 30 some odd Vermeer’s is gone, and that it was taken in this really brutal way and they’ve been missing ever since, and that there’s a government agency that’s been tasked with getting it back. That might sound pretty simple, but I think that’s pretty important. Millions of people know that now, and know a lot more than they would have if they didn’t listen.

 

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