By Aara Ramesh
Earlier this year, we wrote about a three-decade-old case in which two men dressed as Boston Police Department officers in the early hours of March 18, 1990, stole 13 art pieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and vanished into thin air. The entire crime took only 81 minutes and remains today the single largest incident of property theft in U.S. history.
Since then, there has been no fresh information on the case. Trails have gone cold, witnesses have checked out, and law enforcement have not been able to identify a pattern. The last significant breakthrough in the case was announced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in March 2015. But the two suspects they named had both died within a year of the heist.
The stolen pieces, including rare paintings by Dutch masters Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer, are today considered to be worth half a billion dollars. The museum has offered a $10 million reward to anyone who comes forth with information that would help in recovering the works.
Now a Boston man has come forward, claiming he saw one of the pieces shortly after they were stolen, and says he has identified to law enforcement a person he believes was involved in the theft.
Paul Calantropo is a retired jeweler and fine art appraiser. According to Calantropo, in 1990, a friend of his from when he was a teenager, Bobby Donati, brought a “shiny finial in the shape of an eagle” for Calantropo to appraise. The jeweler said he was “stunned” as he recognized the piece immediately as one that was stolen from the museum about a month earlier.
Calantropo said he was “always uneasy” about his connection to Donati, who had a criminal history involving robberies and was friendly with local mobsters. He told Donati that the piece had no value on the market anymore, as “the whole world knew it was stolen” and it would be impossible to get rid of.
If his story is true, then Calantropo may have been the last to see the piece in person. Just a year later, Donati was murdered at the age of 50 and was left in the boot of his car. It took decades for Calantropo to speak to the authorities about his alleged meeting, though now he says he has been speaking with the FBI and the museum’s security director for about five years.
He is also working with a group of independent sleuths, including a “retired law enforcement official, two former convicts and [a] retired Boston Globe investigative reporter” to help track down the pieces. The group collectively signed a contract with the museum saying they will share the reward equally if they are able to help recover the pieces in “restorable condition.”
One address the group supplied to the FBI was searched in August but yielded nothing. Over the years, authorities have posited that the artwork has been circulated amongst organized crime groups across Boston, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, the last of which is where the trail seems to have ended. Apparently, an attempt was made in 2003 to sell one of the paintings, but nothing more came of that.
The FBI has not yet named any suspects officially in the crime, though they said they are reasonably certain they know who pulled it off. Whether Donati is one of them is not known, but it seems likely, according to those familiar with the case. Worryingly, it is highly possible that the information on where the artworks were stashed accompanied Donati to his grave.
Meanwhile, Julian Radcliffe, an “art detective,” says there is still hope that the paintings can be recovered, despite the fact that the “recovery rate after 20 years is only 15 percent.” Radcliffe operates a database where buyers and traders can check whether a piece they are interested in has been reported as being stolen.
Radcliffe says there is a chance that the paintings make their way back onto the market one day, either wittingly or not, as it is possible that the original thief hid the artworks and then either could not go recover them or died before they could. He hopes that one day the paintings pop up on his database.