October 5, 2010
Liberty Puzzles Q&A with Ulrich Boser
Liberty Puzzles Q&A with Ulrich Boser
Ulrich Boser actively investigated the Gardner Museum theft for many years. His recent book The Gardner Heist was published in 2009 (Collins Press). Mr. Boser kindly answered some of our questions regarding the now-legendary case:
LP: What made you decide to take this case on full-time? How long did you work on it?
UB: I didn’t know much about the case. But in late 2004, I wrote a story for US News & World Report about a man called Harold Smith. He was one of the world’s most successful art detectives. He had recovered lost Renoirs; he had exposed forged Da Vincis. And Smith had worked the Gardner caper for years. But within weeks of our meeting, Smith died of skin cancer, and after his death, I decided to pick up where he left off and start searching for the lost art.
LP: You investigated some pretty unsavory characters. Was there an element of danger?
UB: People often are surprised by who steals art. Hollywood and the media often portray art thieves as debonair and stylish, gentlemen thieves. But the reality is something much different, and for the most part, the people who steal paintings and sculptures are run-of-the-mill crooks, aging drug deals and out-of-work purse snatches. They don’t wear black turtlenecks. They don’t dance through lasers like a Russian gymnast. Indeed, the thieves who robbed the Gardner cut two of the paintings out of their frames. If you had taken a drawing class in high school, you would know that slicing the works like that could potentially destroy them forever.
LP: Why did the thieves steal the goblet and finial? It seems like someone really wanted that Napoleonic flag. Crime lair wall decoration?
UB: I don't know why the thieves stole the items, but whatever happened, I don't believe the lost works are in a criminal liar. Experts call this the Dr. No theory of art theft, after the criminal genius of the James
Bond film. But the problem is that there is no evidence. None at all. No investigator has ever found a secret stash of stolen paintings in a millionaire’s mansion. No investigator has ever caught a burglar who worked on behalf of a real-life Dr. No.
LP: Why didn't they steal the Titian?
UB: Again, I don't know. But we know from the evidence from the motion detectors that the thieves didn't even go to the third floor of the museum.
LP: If the paintings are in storage somewhere locally, is it possible that all the people that know their location are dead?
UB: I think it's possible. As part of my research, I uncovered new evidence that implicates Boston gangster David Turner and shows that he was most likely one of the thieves who robbed the museum. I
discovered FBI files that describe how Turner’s crime boss, Carmello Merlino, twice tried to return the paintings in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. I spoke to the last witness to see the thieves before they entered the museum and he described one of the thieves as having “Asian eyes,” and Turner fits that description. And when I confronted Turner with the evidence, he appeared to brag, telling me that I should put his face on the cover of my book. Turner is currently serving a 38-year jail term; he has never been charged with the museum theft.
As for the art, I don’t know it's location. But if I were to speculate—and this is definitely speculation—I believe that the thieves most likely stashed the paintings in a safe house somewhere outside of Boston and then lost control of the works. The situation is complicated by the fact that David Turner appears to have killed many of those who participated in the robbery. A government informant once claimed that Lenny DiMuzio was involved in the heist. He was shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of his car, and investigators believe Turner was the triggerman. An FBI source once fingered George Reissfelder for the crime, and in March 1991, he was found dead of a cocaine overdose. Many believe that his death was a target killing.
LP: Was the guard in on it? With the false alarms and the falling for the lame "you're wanted" story, were those legit?
UB: I think we can say that it's very likely that there was an inside connection to the Gardner heist. For instance, the thieves knew how the museum security system worked. The museum crooks also spent more than an hour inside the museum, while most robberies only take about 10 minutes. But there's not enough evidence to implicate any of the guards who worked at the museum at the time of the caper. And it's possible that it could have been someone else, a former curator or deliveryman who gave the crooks inside information. We just don't know.
LP: How much credence do you give to the theory of the art being used as collateral in organized crime deals? How likely is it that the paintings have scattered to the four winds?
UB: I don't believe the art has been scattered. There's a $5 million reward for the lost art. That's a lot of money, a lot reasons for someone not to scatter the art to the four winds. I also believe that
the lost Gardner masterpieces will come back. It might take years, even decades, but soon or later, the paintings will be returned. In the world of art theft, hope springs eternal for good reason—cases
often take years to solve. North Carolina had to wait more than 140 years to get back its copy of the Bill of Rights. A thief stole the artifact in 1865, and the work floated around the art underworld for decades until the FBI recovered the canvas in a sting in 2005.