The FBI’s Art Crime Team That Solves the Most Notorious Museum Heists in the World

October 22, 2020Matt Fratus
Coffee or Die Photo

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, was the victim of the single largest property theft in the world. Two art thieves dressed in police uniforms arrived near the side entrance and pushed the buzzer, informing the guard inside they were responding to a disturbance call. Despite breaking protocol, the guard let the pair in through an employee’s entrance. The two security guards on shift were tied up in the museum’s basement, and 81 minutes later the thieves had acquired 13 individual pieces of artwork with an estimated total value at the time of $200 million, or $500 million today.

The Concert, by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer and the most valuable of the 13 works stolen, is one of only 34 paintings attributed to Vermeer still known to exist.

Since the early morning heist on March 18, 1990, the two thieves remain on the loose. The 30-year cold case is among the most notorious unsolved art thefts in history. “The policy has always been that you don’t open that door in the middle of the night for God,” said Lyle Grindle, then the director of security for the Gardner Museum. “Why on this one night they opened the door no one can explain.”

Questions still linger: Was it an inside job? Did Whitey Bulger, Boston’s most infamous Irish mobster, have any involvement? Did the Irish Republican Army smuggle the art to an IRA hideaway in Dublin?

It remains a mystery. 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum FBI coffee or die
Inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, the Dutch Room still displays empty frames where the missing paintings once hung. The museum first offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the safe return of the stolen art. That reward has since jumped to $10 million. Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Art crime can be a very profitable scheme; total losses for cultural property crimes are estimated at roughly $8 billion per year. Throughout history, museums and showrooms have been target-rich opportunities for criminals, especially during wartime. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in large part from the urging of American museums — established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. Loosely depicted in the movie The Monuments Men, a team based on the Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit was sent to recover Nazi loot and plunder.

Ahead of the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad was looted on three separate occasions. US Army Col. Matthew Bogdanos, described as a real-life Indiana Jones, put a makeshift team together to investigate the theft of at least 13,864 art objects.

There wasn’t a dedicated team already in place to handle these objectives. The FBI responded to the biggest museum theft in history by establishing the Art Crime Team in 2004.

“We realized then that we needed a group of agents who were specially trained in the area of stolen and looted art,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who managed the program.

OSS Monuments Men FBI Coffee or Die
The Monuments Men was inspired by the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit. The FBI now leads the charge. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

In its relatively short existence, the FBI Art Crime Team has recovered more than 15,000 objects of cultural property estimated to be worth more than $800 million. The team has 20 FBI agents assisted by special prosecutors from the Department of Justice whose sole job is the investigation and recovery of art.

One difficulty in investigating any art theft is the enormous amount of replicas, imitations, and forgeries that exist in the market. 

“A fraudster bought a $100 unsigned painting, forged the signature of the artist Juan Gris, and sold it to a dealer for $65,000. The dealer then sold it to a collector for $135,000,” according to the FBI website. Magness-Gardiner explained, “The first buyer may know it’s a fake, but the second buyer doesn’t. And then it’s in the marketplace.”

In 2009, the Art Crime Team helped arrest James Biear, the former employee of an art collector, who had stolen an Andy Warhol silk-screened Heinz 57 box. And in 2014, the FBI uncovered a stash of 7,000 cultural artifacts from the home of Don Miller, a 91-year-old man. The FBI believed a large portion of the lifelong collection was acquired illegally; it included everything from arrowheads made by Native Americans to a Ming Dynasty jade and possibly even concrete from Adolf Hitler’s suicide bunker. 

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Museum studies graduate students from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) help care for artifacts recovered from Don Miller in a temperature-, humidity-, and light-controlled facility near Indianapolis. Students and highly trained IUPUI staff also help prepare the artifacts for shipping when repatriation occurs. Photo courtesy of FBI.gov.

The FBI Art Crime Team works in tandem with Interpol, and the crimes they investigate may also involve money laundering, the financing of terrorism, and bankruptcy. They follow a painstaking process that can take years of archeological research, anthropological sleuthing, and old-fashioned detective work. In 2005, the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list was established to help inform the public as well as tighten the focus on specific individuals and cases. It acts in a similar fashion to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list of criminals and terrorists that was established in 1950.

Peculiarly enough, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston isn’t on the top 10 list. That doesn’t mean, however, that the FBI isn’t inching closer to bringing those responsible to justice and returning the artworks to their empty frames still waiting at the museum. The $10 million reward offered may one day persuade those with hidden knowledge to come forward.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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