To mark the anniversary last week of the spectacular 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston — among other things the thieves made off with Vermeer’s The Concert, seen above, three Rembrandts and a Manet — I made my way through The Gardner Heist, a new book by Ulrich Boser, a journalist who was drawn into the case four years ago. At the time Boser was thinking about doing a profile of Harold Smith, an insurance claims adjuster who had made a name for himself as a specialist in stolen art and jewelry. No surprise, the Gardner theft, which remains the biggest unsolved art crime, was a preoccupation for Smith and he had followed many leads over the years.
But Smith was 78 when he met Boser and died a few months later. Boser obtained access to Smiths files and dove into the case, which for the most part meant digging into the rotating collection of suspects whose names have been floated repeatedly over the years. He follows the trail to Britain and Ireland. The IRA is often suspected to have either played a role in the robbery or taken possession later of the art. At this point, as often happens with stolen art, it may now have disappeared into gangland, to be used as collateral in gun running and drug deals.
The dust jacket promises that Boser has identified the robbers but has he? In the last chapter Boser abruptly circles back to a suspect he looked into earlier in the book, a Boston hood named David Turner who’s now doing a 38 year stretch in prison for trying to rob an armored car depot. The Gardner was robbed by two men posing as a cops. Boser shows some photographs of various suspects in the case to a witness who saw what appeared to be two policemen waiting in a car outside museum that night, 19 long years ago. The witness says he thinks he recognizes Turner. Thinks? For a time Boser also communicates with Turner in prison and thinks he detects “an undertone of vanity” in his voice when he asks him questions over the phone about the Gardner thefts, which, by the way, Turner denies having had anything to do with.
There’s other evidence that points to Turner, plausible yes but none of it conclusive. And even if he’s one of the pair who robbed the Gardner that night, it doesn’t appear that he still controls the stolen art. If he did, he would almost certainly use the promise of its return as leverage to get his sentence reduced for the armored car crime. But if Boser doesn’t convince you that he’s cracked the case, he persuades you that it’s a swamp of intricacies. As somebody once said to Jack Nicholson, “It’s Chinatown, Jake”.