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Deadline Approaches For $10 Million Reward On Leads To Gardner Museum Paintings

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves dressed as cops broke into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with 13 artworks, among them a Vermeer and three Rembrandts. The stolen paintings are valued at more than $500 million, and the museum has long offered a reward for information that will lead authorities to recover all of the paintings in good condition. The reward was $5 million until May, when it was temporarily doubled. But that $10 million reward - and like Cinderella's coach - reverts to a $5 million pumpkin on January 1.

Stephen Kurkjian is a Boston Globe investigative journalist who's written about the theft, and he joins us now. And two thieves dressed as cops get in. How long did it take them to make off with 13 works of art back in 1990?

STEPHEN KURKJIAN: Well, once they were in - and they got in around 1 o'clock - it's - in all, they only spent less than an hour and a half, 81 minutes, inside the museum carrying out their rampage and stealing these 13 pieces.

SIEGEL: Did they seem to know what they were doing? Did they seem to be art connoisseurs out on an adventure, or were they just grabbing what looked prominent to them?

KURKJIAN: No. The first room that we - that is known because there was a motion detector inside the museum capturing where they went and at what point - we know they went right to the gallery where the most magnificent artwork was contained, the Dutch room. And it's from there they got the Rembrandts and the Vermeer and a couple of other very important pieces.

SIEGEL: Now, after all these years, the paintings haven't been found. But the FBI, as I understand it, is not completely in the dark. They have a timeline at least which they think follows the paintings from one crime ring to another. Is that right?

KURKJIAN: Yes. The FBI, in a - the most revelatory announcement they've made over the 28 years since the theft took place, made - they made the statement that, quote, "they knew who the thieves were," that they were dead and that the artwork had taken a torturous course out of Boston, mid-Atlantic states, up to Maine, to Connecticut and then had last been heard of a decade before in Philadelphia.

SIEGEL: Whenever there's a mystery concerning an art theft, to me at least there's always a secondary mystery, which is, how valuable can paintings be to someone if in fact they're known to have been stolen from a museum? They can't be sold or displayed very publicly, can they?

KURKJIAN: No, you can't. And that - it gives rise to two theories. One is that there is a Dr. No who could not live without one or more of these pieces of artwork who commissioned the theft. That's been memorialized in many films. I don't put much stock in that because of the way they pulled off the robbery. They damaged valuable paintings. So the - a second theory that I've worked on hard is this idea that artwork like this can be a get-out-of-jail-free card.

SIEGEL: You're saying whatever - a gang has one of their members in prison - parole for him or a shorter sentence in exchange for a Rembrandt.

KURKJIAN: I think that they didn't realize it doesn't work. The feds do not - the FBI does not bargain with criminals. One thing I learned about these gangs - if they know there's an opportunity to steal something, they will do the theft and figure out what to do with the artwork or what to do with the valuables after the theft is consummated.

SIEGEL: Saying the reason, like Everest, is because it's there.

KURKJIAN: Yes. And they know an easy way of getting up there.

SIEGEL: If the idea of a $10 million reward or even the still-ample $5 million reward in 2018 - if that doesn't work, what would be a way to try to get these paintings returned to the museum?

KURKJIAN: I've given a lot of thought to that, as others have, too. And I think that public appeal is the best place, best way of going forward, in which they have in front of those empty frames individuals such as our Boston Cardinal O'Malley, who has great cachet with all segments of society.

And the point he would make is these paintings, these masterpieces were put on our wall here in Boston. Twenty-eight years these paintings have been missing. Our children have not been inspired. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet - they did not come from the upper class. They came from all classes of society. We don't know who would be inspired by this artwork.

SIEGEL: Stephen Kurkjian, investigative reporter and author of "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off The World's Greatest Art Heist," thanks for talking with us today.

KURKJIAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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