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BOOK REVIEW

A prodigal art thief still rocks 'n' rolls

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2009
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The audacity of the heist captured worldwide attention. Two men strolled into Boston's Museum of Fine Arts at noontime on April 14, 1975, startling onlookers as they pulled a painting off the wall of a second-floor gallery. They pistol-whipped a guard who tried to stop them and escaped out a rear door.

No one was ever charged with the theft, but nine months later notorious local art thief and rock 'n' roll band leader Myles J. Connor Jr. orchestrated the return of Rembrandt's portrait of Elizabeth Van Rijn. ("Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak"). As part of the deal, Connor, who was facing about 15 years in prison for an art heist in Maine and bail jumping, was handed just a four-year term.

Now, in an autobiography chronicling his thrill-seeking life of crime, Connor, 66, who grew up in Milton, confirms what investigators have always suspected. He masterminded the MFA robbery, donned a brown wig and leather chauffeur's cap to cover his red hair, grabbed the Rembrandt, and cracked its frame while making his frantic getaway.

In "The Art of the Heist," written with crime novelist Jenny Siler, Connor offers a dizzying account of bank robberies, museum break-ins, drug deals, and violent brushes with the law during a lifetime of thumbing his nose at authority.

The son of a police officer, Connor says he could have been a successful doctor or lawyer, but is unapologetic about the tumultuous life he chose. He recounts breaking out of a Maine jail in the 1960s by carving a fake pistol out of a bar of soap, and getting critically wounded in a Back Bay gunfight with police after shooting a State Police officer.

Then there was the time in the 1960s that Connor scaled a roof at Boston's Children's Museum, dropping inside an attic window on ropes, Spiderman-style, before escaping with only a small stash of treasures because it was all he could carry.

In the 1970s, Connor confides he posed as a psychologist and avid collector of Asian art and antiquities to win the trust of unwitting curators at museums around New England. Once invited in to show off some of his collection, Connor said he would case the museums and often return to rob them.

The book is clearly shaded by Connor's version of the truth. He accuses some of the agents and police officers who pursued him of being corrupt. And he portrays himself as an honorable crook, who shied away from violence.

Still, he offers a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a man who was willing to risk everything, even his own life, for a challenging score.

Connor once claimed he could broker the return the masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, when he was in prison. He offers some tantalizing clues about the theft, believed to be the largest art heist in history, but devotes very little attention to it in his book.

He contends that a former associate visited him in prison shortly after the Gardner heist and boasted that he and a friend had robbed the museum and planned to use the stolen masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas as a bargaining chip with authorities to negotiate Connor's release.

"Just like you did with the Rembrandt," the associate said, according to Connor. Only the two alleged thieves died shortly afterward. And the Gardner case remains unsolved.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

THE ART OF THE HEIST: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller, and Prodigal Son By Myles J. Connor Jr., with Jenny Siler

Collins, 294 pp., $26.99

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