In a stunning twist in a case that had frustrated investigators for decades, federal law enforcement officials said today that they had identified the people who stole $500 million worth of masterworks in a daring heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
The officials also said they had determined where the artworks had traveled in the years after the robbery, which is considered the greatest art theft in history. But the officials said they did not know where they were now and were appealing to the public for their help in finding them.
“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence in the years after the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft. With that confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England,” Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the FBI, said.
DesLauriers said that after the attempted sale of the paintings about a decade ago, the FBI did not know where the artworks — which included three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a portrait by Edouard Manet, and sketches by Renoir — had been taken.
Officials said at a Boston news conference they would not release the names of the individuals who masqueraded as police officers to gain entry in the early-morning robbery at the Gardner exactly 23 years ago.
DesLauriers said that because the investigation is continuing it would be “imprudent” to disclose their names or the name of the criminal organization. He said the probe was in its “final chapter.”
“I think we’re all optimistic that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place,” US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said.
The FBI said it was continuing its search both in and beyond the Connecticut and Phildaelphia areas and launching a public awareness campaign that would include a dedicated FBI website, video postings on FBI social media sites (see the top of this post), digital billboards, and a podcast.
DesLauriers said the Gardner heist had received extensive media coverage in the Boston area, but officials wanted to “widen the ‘aperture of awareness’” to reach more of the American public.
Officials noted that a $5 million reward has been offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings. Anthony Amore, the museum security chief, said that officials have reason to believe the paintings have changed hands several times.
Ortiz said the statute of limitations had run out for the people who actually robbed the museum. She said there was also the possibility that prosecutors could grant immunity from prosecution to people who might be subject to other charges, such as charges of possessing the stolen paintings.
“That is a very strong possibility, but I cannot give blanket immunity without knowing the specifics,” he said.
The FBI said anyone with information about the artwork can contact them at 1-800-CALL FBI or the museum directly or through a third party. Tips may also be submitted online at https://tips.fbi.gov, the FBI said.
Law enforcement officials have been puzzled for years by the heist. The robbers entered the museum and tied up two night watchmen in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. After years of investigative dead ends, DesLauriers said, the probe “accelerated” in 2010 and “crucial pieces of evidence” were developed identifying the robbers and their associates.John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Todd Feathers contributed to this report.