Stephen Kurkjian: Gardner Museum Theft Started As ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Scam

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Ericka Broderick photo

Investigative reporter and author Stephen Kurkjian talks about his new book at Southern New Hampshire University.

By Ericka Broderick

MANCHESTER – Three-time Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Stephen Kurkjian shared his theory on the mystery of the greatest art theft in history Wednesday at Southern New Hampshire University.

Kurkjian told the SNHU audience that he hopes the 13 paintings that were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 would eventually be returned to their home in Boston.

But the retired Boston Globe investigative reporter said he believes it will probably never happen.  Promoting his best-selling book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, Kurkjian said the theft was likely the result of organized crime figures hoping to use the art as bargaining chips in potential “Get Out of Jail Free” schemes.

Sketches of the art heist suspects.

Ericka Broderick photo

Sketches of the art heist suspects. (Ericka Broderick)

During a 90-minute lecture, Kurkjian took the students back in time to this historic event 26 years ago. He detailed decades of his investigative reporting on the case including private conversations with suspects and a security guard’s first-hand account of that night.

That account was provided by Rick Abath, the museum’s night watchman who encountered the thieves the night of the heist. Kurkjian said that on March 18, 1990, at about 1 a.m., two unidentified men showed up at the side door of the Gardner Museum. Kurkjian said the two men who were dressed as Boston police officers asked to be buzzed in to “investigate a disturbance.”

He said that after Abath let them in, they tied Abath and his co-worker up and threw them into the museum’s basement. An hour later, 13 pieces of art worth close to $500 million were stolen, including Rembrandt’s The Storm of the Sea of Galilee. The two thieves were never seen again and their motives remain a mystery 26 years later.

Kurkjian said he believes the paintings were not stolen for their value. “Paintings stolen like this is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” he said. His theory revolves around the idea of stolen artwork being used as a ransom for authorities to release convicted organized criminals from prison.

Communication student Jeannette Silver, 19, said she loved Kurkjian’s lecture.

”I would love to now go to visit the museum and see the empty frames for myself and relive history and be a part of history,” Silver said.

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