15 January 2019

The Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 – And He Seemed Like a Nice Enough Guy


by Paul D. Marks

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away or at least it seems that way since I’m talking about the 1990s, I met a guy through the Writer’s Guild (WGAw) who claimed he knew what happened at the Gardner Museum. In case you don’t remember, on March 18, 1990 there was an audacious theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Two guys dressed like cops stole thirteen works of art valued at a mere 500 million dollars (or 300 million according to some reports, but what’s a couple of mil between friends?). It seemed like pretty easy cut & run heist. And they still haven’t recovered the stolen works and no one’s been thrown in the slammer for it.


The missing artworks are: The Concert by Vermeer (c. 1664–1666); Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (c. 1634); The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (1633); A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt (1633); Landscape with an Obelisk by Govert Flinck (1638); Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet (c. 1878–1880); Cortege aux Environs de Florence by Degas (c. 1857–1860); Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 by Degas (1884); Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 by Degas (1884); Three Mounted Jockeys by Degas (c. 1885–1888); La Sortie de Pesage by Degas (date unknown); An ancient Chinese gu (vessel) (c. 1200–1100 BC) ; A bronze eagle finial (c. 1813–1814).

"The Concert" by Vermeer

Now, just to set the scene, this is the top ten from Billboard magazine’s Top Hot 100 songs of 1990: "Hold On,” Wilson Phillips; "It Must Have Been Love,” Roxette; "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinéad O'Connor; "Poison," Bell Biv DeVoe; "Vogue," Madonna; "Vision of Love," Mariah Carey; "Another Day in Paradise,” Phil Collins; "Hold On," En Vogue; "Cradle of Love," Billy Idol; "Blaze of Glory," Jon Bon Jovi.

These weren’t what I was listening to then, except maybe Billy Idol (I was and still am more into alt music) and some of these may have come out after March, but just so you remember – or don’t – what was going on back then.

"A Lady and Gentleman in Black" by Rembrandt

Also, Dances with Wolves got Best Picture, Seinfeld was on in first run. Jurassic Park, the book, came out in 1990. Postmortem (Kay Scarpetta, #1) came out in 1990. And we were using Windows 3.0 (introduced in May). Cell phones were ancient by today’s standards. In 1989 the first really portable cell phone came out, the Motorola Microtac 9800X. And, remember dial-up modems and that chhhhhhh sound and getting disconnected every five minutes.

So back in the day, as they say, back before Facebook, Twitter and even before the Google Search Engine started (1997), we had this thing called BBSes – computer bulletin boards. You could log onto them and chat back and forth in green or amber text, depending on your monitor. The Writers Guild had one. I used to chat with a lot of people about a lot of things there. And somehow I met a guy named Brian McDevitt and we became friendly over the BBS. He seemed like a nice enough guy with a story to tell.

"Chez Tortoni" by Edouard Manet
Turned out he had a production company – and a nice house in a good part of town. He invited me over and we became friends or friendly, if not fast friends. I didn’t know about his past then, though I did know he claimed to know something about the Gardner break-in.

I remember sitting out by his pool, talking scripts and Hollywood and other BS. I think I was hoping he might option a screenplay for his company. And he seemed like a nice enough guy.

I went there a few times. We shot the breeze, ate, had a few beers. He seemed to have a lot of money and definitely wasn’t playing the role of the starving artist. He seemed like a nice enough guy.

"La Sortie de Pesage" by Degas
As time went on, controversy blew up in the Guild over him. Some Guild members were seeing cracks in his façade, starting to see through his act. They tried to get him removed from a committee chairmanship, and maybe even from the Guild – hard to remember after all these years. But not for his involvement or knowledge of the Gardner heist, but because he lied to the Guild about his background. Ultimately, I believe they were unable to have him removed.

Before the Gardner heist, McDevitt was involved in another theft: According to the LA Times: “McDevitt also spent time in jail in connection with the 1979 theft of more than $100,000 in cash and bonds from a Boston bank and was charged with two separate felony thefts from Massachusetts department stores in 1989 and 1990. He was convicted of one and pleaded guilty to the other.” All of which actually might make him perfect for Hollywood, though they like their crooks out in the open. So, if he had just been honest he might have been accepted. And he could have gone to rehab and written a book. Maybe one of the majors would have optioned the book and made it into a movie.

Napoleonic Bronze Eagle Finial
And though there were other suspects, because of his background with the previous theft, he became a suspect in the Gardner heist, though he was never charged. Unfortunately, he died in 2004 without giving up any information on the robbery, though he did claim to know where some of the paintings were.

I remember him telling me he knew something about the theft, but not that he had participated in it. Of course, this was before his backstory came out. But he seemed like a very nice guy.

The heist remains unsolved and there is a handsome reward for anyone with info on the whereabouts of the stolen art. From the Gardner’s website:
“The Museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen works.

Despite some promising leads in the past, the Gardner theft of 1990 remains unsolved. The Museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney's office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art.

The Museum is offering a reward of $10 million for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 works in good condition. A separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial.

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks or the investigation should contact the Gardner Museum directly. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed.”
So, if you have some info now’s the time to get into gear, get that Rembrandt out of your basement, and get that reward.

I’m not sure why this popped into my head recently. Maybe I heard something somewhere. Or maybe it just bubbled up from the deep like the bubbles at the La Brea Tar Pits. But either way, the crime has never been solved. The art has never been returned. My “friend” never came clean. He died young, apparently taking his secrets to the grave. And to this day, no one knows for sure who stole the artworks.

He might not have been all he seemed to be – and was maybe more on some levels. But he seemed like a nice enough guy. But isn’t that always the way with con men?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Dave Congalton of KVEC Radio interviewed me. Check out the podcast here. My part comes in at 20 minutes, 30 seconds into the recording.

***

As awards nomination season is upon us, just a gentle reminder that I've got the following short stories that are eligible for 2018:


"There's An Alligator in My Purse" from the "Florida Happens" Bouchercon 2018 Anthology.

"The Practical Girl's Guide to Murder" from Mysterical-E - Spring 2018.

And in the novel category, Broken Windows:

And Broken Windows has been getting some great reviews. Here's a small sampling:


Kristin Centorcelli,Criminal Element: 

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"


"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

***

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24 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Interesting case. I remember hearing about it but not much since. A lot of stolen art for nothing to show on radar after all these years.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, O'Neil. As for the art, it's probably sitting in some collector's private collection so that s/he can admire it, have pride of "ownership" and they're probably laughing at the world.

Art Taylor said...

The Gardner Heist is such a fascinating story. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book for the Washington Post that said it had solved it, but in the end.... Well, you know where we are (aren't). Really enjoyed your post here--such a fun story!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. Glad you enjoyed the post. So the book led readers on to think it been solved and then, no! I'd want my money back if I'd paid for it.

Art Taylor said...

Oh, no--not that it had been solved but rather that the author (an investigative reporter) had the real story, if only the authorities would follow through on it.... But it wasn't entirely convincing (obviously not to those authorities either).

Paul D. Marks said...

Sounds to me like someone, the author, just wanted to make a quick buck... Hopefully the book didn't sell well once word got out.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Paul,

That was fascinating. You could do a story based on the case. The combination of fact and fiction make for great writing.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. That's something to think about. It was a weird situation all the way around.

Robert Lopresti said...

Call me an old cynic but the idea of someone being shunned in Hollywood for lying sounds hilarious. Thanks for the interesting tale.

GBPool said...

Just think, those artifacts are sitting behind a secret wall or in a basement vault somewhere. Someday they will turn up. Maybe when they tear down somebody's fancy house after they meet with an unfortunate accident like ten bullet holes in the chest. And everybody said he was such a nice guy. Great post, Paul.

Eve Fisher said...

I remember the heist - and I agree, the artwork's sitting in someone's private collection, where they enjoy it only in complete solitude. Or just knowing they have it is enough, which is even sicker. But great post. Nice to see there is still hope. And yes, all cons seem very nice. At first.

Elizabeth said...

The artworks will turn up someday in an attic or basement. I've seen two or three shows where an antique hunter buys an old barn, thinking he might find an old tractor or something in there, & it turns out to be chock full of old Studebakers, Packards, suicide door Mafia cars, etc.

Maggie King said...

I lived in Boston eons ago, way before the heist. I once attended a concert in the Gardner's courtyard, but never made it into the museum. This is always a fascinating story and will continue to be so till someone needs 10 mil enough to come forward and say "Oh gee, look what I found in my grandpa's attic."

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Rob. And you’d think so, wouldn’t you? I guess it depends what you’re lying about and who you’re doing it to ;-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. That’s where I’m thinking they are. Whoever stole them most likely sold them to someone who has a very private collection.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Eve. I would think that part of the fun of having something is being able to show it off, but maybe for certain people it’s just having it. And yes, all cons seem very nice…at first.

Paul D. Marks said...

Definitely, Liz. Some day they’ll turn up on American Pickers or something like that :-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

I just figured it out, Maggie. It’ll be the child or grandchild of the person who has the art who returns it for the reward. Since it won’t be on their phone it won’t mean anything to them and they’ll just want the money for pocket change.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Interesting read, Paul. There are no writers named Brian McDevitt in the IMDB, so maybe your friend really did con his way into the WGA. That would be much harder to pull off today.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Larry. I think he was a conman par excellence.

Leigh Lundin said...

Paul, I lived south of Boston at the time and the 128 area went into shock at the theft. I followed the news avidly for weeks as clues unfolded, ultimately not leading anywhere in particular, curse it.

Good luck in your eligible stories. I'm listening now to your interview, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Leigh. And at least the interview is short :-) . As to the Gardner, it really is an amazing story and beyond belief that no one's been caught or none of the works found yet.

Julie Leo said...

How interesting! Did you ever try to sneak upstairs and look around? WBUR did an investigation and pod series on this heist a while ago, found here if interested:
https://www.wbur.org/lastseen

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Julie. And the link. I'll check it out. The whole case is fascinating, isn't it?