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25 Years Later, a Renewed Campaign to Solve Boston's Greatest Art Heist

In a city still reeling from the Marathon bombings, questions of what's been lost resonate.

In this file photo, empty frames from which thieves took "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," left background, by Rembrandt and "The Concert," right foreground, by Vermeer, remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Twenty-five years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were winding down, two men dressed as Boston policemen appeared at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, and the security guard on duty let them in.

They were not cops but thieves, and after handcuffing and wrapping the guard and his colleague in duct tape and leaving them in the basement, they proceeded to steal 13 paintings by cutting the canvasses from their frames, and hauled the artworks of Vermeer, Rembrandt and others out into the night.

Two years ago, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev exploded pressure-cooker bombs filled with shrapnel on Boylston Street at the final stages of the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding and maiming over 200 others, many of whom had their limbs amputated.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on trial at federal court, and Boston is reliving the senseless attack all over again, even as the city prepares for the race next month—and in many ways, marvels at the resilience of the metropolis, growing stronger in the broken places.

Can a city bounce back and make itself whole again on every front—and is the theft of art from a museum, beloved as it may be, really a comparable loss? On the quarter-century anniversary of the unsolved Gardner heist, there are new calls to get those paintings back by any means necessary—not to find and punish those responsible for the crime, the statute of limitations having long since expired, but to restore a part of the city’s cultural fabric that has been stripped away.

An editorial in the Boston Globe argues that the FBI should open its files and take advantage of crowdsourcing technology to jog memories and turn up new leads, citing a 2009 MIT experiment offering rewards through social media to find 10 red balloons located at random locations across the country. The balloons were found in under nine hours.

An art theft is a particular kind of crime that seems at once glamorous and revealing of a city’s lack of sophistication and vulnerability. The Gardner Museum has for years been the place that college students took their visiting parents after Sunday brunch, to stroll past the tapestries hung in the elegant Bostonian’s home in the Fens. But it had a notoriously bad security system. It was only a matter of time before it got hit.

In his recently published book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, author Stephen Kurkjian suggests the crime may have been choreographed as a bargaining chip to free a mob lieutenant from jail. Kurkjian is as dogged as an investigative reporter as they come—full disclosure, we were colleagues years ago at the Globe—but even he doesn’t care if every aspect of the mystery is solved, as long as the paintings are returned.

“It’s our common wealth,” he says. “It's part of our treasure, the way the Boston Red Sox are part of our culture.” A broader appeal to restore that piece of the city, he says, might be more successful in nearby working-class enclaves like Revere or Everett than pleas to help the FBI. A campaign to get the paintings back would be driven by civic pride.

A similar groundswell from the community helped inform the recovery of nine Impressionist paintings, including a masterpiece by Claude Monet, stolen from the Marmottan Museum in Paris in 1985, Kurkjian says.

All kinds of landmarks and artifacts make up the collective memory of a city, touchstones that ground us and make us feel uniquely connected to the place we call home. In Boston, those pieces of the puzzle might include the Citgo sign and the bronze birds of “Make Way for Ducklings” in the Public Garden—several of which have been stolen, only to be restored after a public shaming.

But time may be running out for the Gardner, as future generations know only of empty frames. A recent study suggests that the shelf life of a city’s collective memory is 25 years, the amount of time that has passed since the theft.

The investigation to date has revealed an underworld of toughs and gangsters that are straight out of movies like The Departed or The Town. The thieves executed the operation with the cold professionalism of a well-planned bank robbery, maintained a code of silence, and got away with it.

That feature of Boston’s culture is also part of the city’s collective memory, edging out the institutions, like art museums, that are relegated to the role of hunting grounds. What a sad evolution, if our legend is not about the paintings, but the criminals who stole them.

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