Sunday, January 03, 2010

Book Review: "The Gardner Heist"

If you've ever spent any time in Boston at all (and quite possibly even if you haven't) you are likely aware that it's the sight of the greatest unsolved art robbery in history: the pillaging of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in the very early hours of 18 March 1990. Two thugs dressed as policemen conned their way into the museum, handcuffed the two underqualified security guards, and made their way through the building, ultimately leaving with thirteen works of art (some masterpieces, some minor works, valued at anywhere between $300-500 million).

Ulrich Boser's The Gardner Heist (HarperCollins, 2009) delves deeply into the story of the theft itself, but concentrates more on the aftermath and the whodonit aspect of the crime: after becoming (as he freely admits) wildly obsessed with the robbery, Ulrich attempts to do what Boston police, the FBI and other authorities have failed to do for the last nineteen-plus years - solve the case and recover the missing objects. Boser doesn't manage to crack the case, but he does offer some tantalizing clues, and takes us deep into the Boston underworld in the process.

His search leads him to seek out and interview various people connected in different ways with Boston's criminal element (including more than a few of the criminals themselves, although he quickly discovers that a great many of those suspected of having connections to the Gardner robbery have met untimely and often violent ends). We meet Donald Turner (serving a prison sentence until the mid-2030s), who bears a spitting image to one of the robbers and one of whose known associates (now dead) looks an awful lot like the other intrude. Boser introduces us to criminal lawyer Marty Leppo and confessed art thief Myles Connor, as well as to a whole cast of fascinating characters from both sides of the Atlantic who have sought to solve the case. This makes for good reading, even if some of Boser's actions (i.e. flying to Ireland hoping to run into Whitey Bulger) seem mildly preposterous.

There are so many unanswered questions about the Gardner thefts (including more than a few raised by Boser in this book) - who were the actual robbers? Why have the two guards acted so strangely since the events of that night? (if I had to guess, I'd say the fact that there are so many murders connected with this case probably has a little something to do with it). And of course the big kahuna: just where are the missing artworks? Given the still-unsolved nature of the case, Boser isn't in a position to answer any of these questions, and at times his obsession (again, as he notes in the book) cost him a little bit of perspective (his description of dreaming about the missing paintings, and his fanciful conversation with a fictional criminal mastermind who organized the caper, were a bit much.

Overall, a very good synopsis of the theft and those connected with it, and also a neat little mini-biography of "art detective" Harold Smith, whose files Boser used to begin his investigations into the case. A fitting subject for the next book, perhaps.

The FBI still maintains an open case-file for this crime, and you can read their report, see photos of the missing artworks and descriptions of the suspects here. Return of the art brings a $5 million reward.

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