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BOOK REVIEW

Real-life whodunit remains a mystery

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / February 27, 2009
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Two men disguised as police officers conned their way into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. They quickly subdued the guards, then swept through the treasure-laden rooms, ripping Rembrandts and a Vermeer from their frames and scooping up other masterpieces by Degas and Manet.

Nearly two decades later, the world's largest art heist remains unsolved. The identity of the thieves is a mystery, and so is the fate of the artwork, estimated to be worth $300 million to $500 million.

In "The Gardner Heist," author Ulrich Boser offers a tantalizing whodunit as he embarks on an exhaustive search for the stolen masterpieces that takes him from the back alleys of Boston to the cliffs of England and picturesque villages overlooking Galway Bay in Ireland.

Boser, who has written for The New York Times and The Washington Post, does not crack the case. But he provides a fascinating look into the theft through colorful interviews with criminals, con men, lawyers, FBI agents, detectives, art experts, and middlemen who claim they can produce the stolen artwork.

His journey begins in early 2005, when he travels to New York City to interview Harold Smith, a renowned art detective who has retrieved an impressive number of pilfered paintings worldwide and is determined to solve the Gardner theft. When the ailing detective dies weeks after the interview, Boser is handed his hefty Gardner file and is immediately consumed by it.

The list of suspects scrutinized by Boser seems endless and includes some of Boston's most notorious crime figures: fugitive gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, charged with 19 murders and one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted; David A. Turner, once dubbed the South Shore's Teflon gangster and now serving a 38-year prison term for the 1999 attempted robbery of an armored car company vault; and Joseph Murray, a Charlestown drug smuggler and Irish Republican Army sympathizer shot to death by his wife in 1992.

One of the most startling revelations - which puts the artwork squarely in Bulger's hands - is disclosed for the first time by Boser, then later discounted as myth. Boser reveals that a reformed art fence he interviewed in an English seaside resort claimed that his business partner was working at an antiques fair in Coconut Grove, Fla., in the early 1990s when Bulger offered to sell him the Gardner loot for $10 million. But the business partner was willing to pay only $1 million and Bulger rejected that deal, according to the art fence.

Yet Boser later concedes that the reformed art fence also told him that when Bulger offered to sell the paintings, he was accompanied by Patrick Nee, a South Boston associate. He notes that it couldn't have happened that way because Nee was in prison at the time. And Nee insists it never happened at all.

Boser then shifts his focus to other suspects, finally fingering the imprisoned Turner as his personal prime suspect. He builds a case against Turner after tracking down an eyewitness who saw the robbers posing as police officers as they sat in a car outside the museum moments before their brazen break-in. That witness says Turner looks like one of the men he saw, but Turner emphatically denies any involvement.

There is no tidy ending to Boser's intriguing journey. To date, not one stolen Gardner treasure has been recovered. Gone are Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," "A Lady and Gentleman in Black," and a postage-stamp-size self-portrait; Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert"; Govaert Flinck's "Landscape With an Obelisk"; five sketches by Edgar Degas; and Edouard Manet's "Chez Tortoni."

Shelley Murphy is a member of the Globe staff.

THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft By Ulrich Boser

Collins, 260 pp., illustrated, $25.99

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