Wednesday 23 August 2017

Dutch sleuth hopes reward will lead to breakthrough in biggest ever US art heist

The empty frame from which thieves cut Rembrandt's Storm On The Sea Of Galilee remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (AP)
The empty frame from which thieves cut Rembrandt's Storm On The Sea Of Galilee remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (AP)

A Dutch art sleuth who claims he is following two possible leads in the largest art heist in US history is hoping a 10 million US dollar (£7.8 million) reward will help track down the collection stolen from a Boston museum in 1990.

Arthur Brand thinks a decision last month to double the reward for information could prompt the return of 13 works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, though the museum's director of security says the leads Mr Brand is following have already been pursued and are considered dead ends.

The reward announced in May by the museum's trustees is on offer only until the end of the year, when it will likely revert to five million dollars (£3.9 million).

"All the lights are on green," said Mr Brand, whose past searches for purloined paintings and sculptures have led to Ukrainian militiamen and Nazi memorabilia collectors.

"If the people do not bring them back this year, it's now or never."

The stunning theft at the Gardner Museum was remarkably simple: Two men masqueraded as Boston police and got into the museum by telling a security guard they were responding to a disturbance.

Once inside, the thieves handcuffed two guards on duty and put them in the museum's basement before snatching masterpieces that included paintings by Dutch masters Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer and French impressionist Edouard Manet.

Investigators have followed an array of leads and suspects - mobsters, Irish gunrunners, local thieves and even a Hollywood screenwriter.

The FBI told The Associated Press in 2015 that two suspects - Boston criminals with ties to organised crime - were dead, but the deaths did not end the search for the Gardner's stolen art.

The bureau said investigators believe the collection moved through organised crime circles to Connecticut and Philadelphia, but its exact whereabouts remain a mystery.

The missing pieces include Rembrandt's only known seascape, Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee, and his A Lady And Gentleman In Black; Manet's Chez Tortoni; and Vermeer's The Concert, one of fewer than 40 known paintings by the 17th-century Dutch painter.

Neither of the leads Mr Brand is following is new, but the tenacious sleuth hopes the bigger reward will help.

He has a record of success - he helped German police seize a huge stash of art in 2015 that included two bronze horse sculptures crafted for Adolf Hitler.

He also helped recover art stolen from a Dutch museum that had ended up with a militia in Ukraine.

He runs a Dutch agency that helps track the provenance of works of art and advises buyers on their authenticity.

One of the leads focuses on a Dutch criminal who was reportedly in possession of photos of the stolen art and tried to sell the works in the Netherlands and the Belgian city of Antwerp in the early 1990s.

Mr Brand has not seen the photos, but says sources tell him they were taken after the theft.

The other lead is one that US law enforcement authorities have followed and discounted: That a former member or members of the IRA may have information about the works.

"We are talking with some people about getting more information and trying to make a deal," Mr Brand said.

Anthony Amore, the Isabella Stewart Gardner's director of security, says the FBI has already has pursued Mr Brand's leads.

"We've explored the leads Arthur is discussing extensively in the past, and we're confident that we closed them without further need for investigation," Mr Amore said.

Mr Brand says he and other experts have not given up on the Irish angle.

"We all think we have very good leads in Ireland, but we still didn't see the paintings, so you never know for sure," he said.

The possibility that whoever now has the art may not face prosecution could also help, along with the huge reward, to get the art back to the Boston museum.

The five-year statute of limitations on crimes associated with the actual theft expired more than 20 years ago, so the thieves can no longer be prosecuted.

AP

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