Gardner Mystery Lingers 20 Years On

By CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor and CBS News producer Phil Hirschkorn

Twenty years ago this month, a pair of thieves pretending to be cops pulled off what's considered the largest art heist in history - pilfering paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and Manet and other works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a take worth perhaps $500 million.

The $500M Art Heist, Unsolved

The crime is still unsolved and generating more interest than ever.

"The paintings are out there somewhere. They're in someone's possession, and we need to get them back," says FBI Special Agent Geoff Kelly, who has headed the investigation for the past eight years.

The vast Gardner art collection resides in the four-story Italian-style palace she built in Boston 108 years ago. Her husband, Jack, a shipping magnate, had left her three million dollars when he died in 1898, and she began construction the following year. When she died in 1924, on her orders, the house became a museum, and the paintings remained just as she hung them.

Until March 18, 1990.

Around half past one in the morning, a pair of thieves wearing police uniforms were buzzed in the museum's side door, telling two inexperienced, overnight security guards they were investigating a disturbance.

The thieves tied up the guards and roamed the galleries for a lengthy 81 minutes, riding off with 13 art works - two of them paintings by Rembrandt - cutting his only seascape, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," from its frame.

"The frame was taken from the wall, dropped to the floor here, and a very sharp knife or a box cutter was used," says Anthony Amore, the museum's head of security since 2005. "I'm absolutely confident that it will be there again."

Even more valuable is a stolen Vermeer painting - "The Concert" - one of only 36 Vermeer paintings in the world, also cut from its frame. The museum estimates it is worth over 200 million dollars.

Before leaving the museum's Dutch room, the thieves grabbed a postage-stamp sized etching by Rembrandt and a landscape by one of his pupils. They headed to another second floor gallery, taking four drawings by Degas. Returning to the first floor, they snatched a Manet painting of a man in Paris café. Along the way, the thieves took a bronze "finial" that once sat on top of Napoleonic flag and a 3,000 year old Chinese bronze beaker.

"I've traveled around the world pursuing leads," Kelly says. "If the leads had dried up and I had nothing on my desk to follow - that would worry me."

Leads that have led across the United States to Europe to Japan - sometimes tantalizing sightings that didn't pan out. For example, a few years ago, a woman in Nevada wrote a letter to the FBI saying she had seen the Vermeer for sale.

"We had agents from our Reno office waiting there at the front door when the antiques mall opened a few hours later and seize the painting," Kelly says. "It was just a copy."

So, perhaps, was the purported Rembrandt that tipsters showed Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg at a New England warehouse 13 years ago. Mashberg, who has covered the theft from the beginning, later described the picture to the Gardner's curators.

"Their opinion of my description was that it was if not the real thing a high quality replica."

Over the years, speculation in this "who done it?" has focused on noted art thieves and organized crime figures. Mashberg thinks it was just local crooks.

"I think the biggest mistaken assumption is that this was commissioned by some dark overlord who is now enjoying seeing the art in his cozy den, and nobody else knows he has it. I think that's a myth," he says. "They could be anywhere in the world, or they could be within five miles of the museum."

As time has gone on, the missing works could be hidden in someone's basement or attic. Adding to the puzzle, the thieves walked by valuable paintings by Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, and Velasquez. Were they stealing for themselves or someone else?

"The paintings were cut out their frames, the frames were damaged, they were rough with the paintings, and I think if someone was going to commission an art theft, they would have given instructions on how to get these paintings out of the museum without damaging them."

The FBI is retesting the limited DNA evidence, but if the thieves' DNA is not on file, that won't help much.

The statute of limitations for art theft has expired in this case, but someone could still be prosecuted for possession of stolen property. However, the U.S. Attorney in Boston is offering immunity from prosecution for anyone with information leading to the recovery of the art.

The Gardner is offering a $5 million reward for the ultimate tip - which would fill the empty frame for the missing Rembrandts and the Vermeer.

Amore says, "It's a place holder. It's not a symbol of mourning. I see it as a symbol of hope."

If you have information on the Gardner theft, call the FBI at 617-742-5533 or the museum at 617-278-5114 or Email