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Gardner Museum awaits the return of stolen artwork

By Jared Bennett and Cassidy Swanson
On March 22, 2013

Students from Mason Pilot Elementary School in Roxbury and their chaperones gathered in front of an empty frame in the Dutch Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. A tour guide explained to the children what happened to A Lady and Gentleman in Black, which used to hang inside.

It is almost exactly 23 years ago that the Gardner Museum fell victim to one of the most costly and infamous art heists in history as thieves made off with this painting by the famous artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and much more.

Early in the morning March 18, 1990, Boston police were preoccupied with the St. Patrick's Day festivities that day when two men - dressed as police officers, no less - broke into the museum at 1:24 a.m. They duct taped the hands, feet and mouths of the guards on duty, and made off with a Vermeer, a Manet, two Rembrandts, five Degas drawings, a Flinck and more - a haul worth an estimated half-billion dollars.

Until now it has remained one of the greatest unsolved crimes of the last century.

"I think I remember reading in The Atlantic some time ago, [the feds] thought [the missing paintings] might be in Ireland," said Paula Spear, a museum patron from Brooklyn, N.Y. But recent evidence suggests otherwise.

 This weekend, the 23rd anniversary of the heist, the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it was confident it knew the  thieves' identities, and believed that the pieces are somewhere in Philadelphia or Connecticut. Right now, the museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of all the pieces, in good condition, no questions asked.

The new information has stirred interest in the long dormant case and among the city's art patrons. It also has revived the intensity of FBI efforts to recover the stolen artwork. Special Agent Greg Comcowich, of the Boston FBI office, said the agency is closer to returning the artwork to the Gardner than ever before.

"We're looking at this like a fugitive investigation," he said. "We know who did it, we know where they are, or at least where they'd like to be. We just need any one tip to close the case."

Comcowich said tips from the public have been helpful in solving crimes many times in the past. The publicity push by the FBI has already has led to an influx of new tips, which Comcowich said is a good sign.

Whether or not the art is ever returned, the heist has become a part of the Gardner's legacy. Katherine Rich of Boston, a gift store employee at the museum, said that patrons often ask if they sell copies of the award-winning documentary Stolen, directed by Rebecca Dreyfus, in the shop. The gift shop does not carry the DVD.

Spear looked on as the students learned about the heist.

"It's almost added to the sparkle of the museum, that they have this story," she said. "But wouldn't it be great if, having been [without the paintings] for so many decades... they got them back?"

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