‘Master Thieves’: Kurkjian’s Theory behind the Mystery of the World’s Biggest Art Heist

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The March 18, 1990 theft of 13 priceless works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains the largest property crime in U.S. history. The mystery surrounding its perpetrators has captivated veteran Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian for decades and is the subject of his new book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist.

Cover of Kurkjian's Master Thieves
Cover of Kurkjian’s Master Thieves

The lost artwork, valued at up to $500 million, included famous works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, along with other valuable pieces. The art has never been recovered, and the identities of the thieves remain unconfirmed, though various theories have abounded for years. The museum was broken into in the early morning hours of the night after St. Patrick’s Day by two men dressed as police officers. Their entry into the building went frustratingly unchallenged by the night watchman who opened the door to them, and who soon found himself bound in duct tape and handcuffed to a bench in the museum’s basement along with the second guard on duty.

The theft of $500 million worth of art suggests a near impossible feat pulled off by expert thieves, but sadly, the reality of the crime was anything but. Master Thieves details how and why security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (which even lacked a sufficient climate control system to properly store the artwork) had been woefully lacking for years, and how its vulnerabilities came to the attention of members of Boston’s criminal class. The perpetrators’ lack of expertise showed in other aspects of the theft, such as the way the paintings were roughly cut from their frames (damaging them in the process), and in the sometimes bizarre selection of which works were taken and which were left behind.

Although the FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who had committed the crime, the paintings have never been found, and Kurkjian has puzzled over the theft ever since it was committed. A Boston native, he attended Boston Latin, Boston University, and Suffolk Law School before going on to work as an investigative reporter for over 40 years until his retirement in 2007. A founding member of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, his tenacious reporting earned him three Pulitzer Prizes over the years. Kurkjian became the Boston Globe’s principal reporter on the Gardner heist, which entailed writing an update on the case on every anniversary of the theft.

After his retirement, Kurkjian decided to devote more energy than ever to following the cold trail of the missing artwork, and was optimistic there was information available that had yet to be discovered. “I believe that growing up in Boston, and me working here, working for the Globe, doing the stories that matter, has connected me with people that, you know, trust me and my expertise,” he tells the Armenian Weekly.

Kurkjian remained haunted by what he calls “Boston’s last, best secret”: the loss of an integral part of its cultural heritage. He interviewed a French detective who consulted with the Gardner Museum after the theft, Pierre Tabel, who draws a sad comparison between the public reaction to art theft in Paris and in Boston. From Master Thieves: “The 1985 theft of nine Impressionist paintings from the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris was considered a ‘national disgrace’ for France. Spurred by the public’s outrage, [Tabel’s] superiors were constantly urging him to waste no resources to recover the paintings, which were returned in 1990. But such an outcry for public assistance has been largely absent from the pursuit of the Gardner paintings.”

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

“We don’t feel that,” Kurkjian laments. “Later, very recently, I put a name on it, and that’s ‘patrimony.’ And what patrimony is, is…your belongings, your treasures, that belong to you—cause it’s part of your identity, when they’re stolen, the loss is deeper.” In Kurkjian’s description of the loss, there is a sense of chagrin. “What I like to say at my talks is we presume ourselves to be a world-class city, we presume ourselves—ourselves, Boston—to be an Olympian city. We’re not Olympian if we allow the only Rembrandt seascape to be missing. We’re not world class if we allow one of the greatest treasures in the world, Vermeer, to be missing.“

The loss is amplified for Kurkjian through his personal connections to the Gardner Museum. His cousins, Luise Vosgerchian and Margaret Kurkjian, were concert pianists who used to perform chamber music recitals at the Gardner between the 1940’s and 1960’s. Kurkjian’s father, a childhood survivor of the Armenian Genocide, was an artist who loved the Gardner Museum, which heightened Kurkjian’s appreciation for the masterpieces and his sadness at their loss.

“He liked that I was working the story,” Kurkjian says. “As I worked on it, I felt a personal connection to the story, and that’s very important for me. I tend to dig deep; when other people get frustrated, I start thinking about my personal connection and how purposeful my being on the story is.”

To Kurkjian, the loss of the Gardner Museum masterpieces is an echo of the losses to Armenian culture during and after the genocide, which was the subject of his other post-retirement project, both of which were temporarily upended by health issues. In 2012, Kurkjian discovered that he had heart disease, and underwent a bypass surgery.

“I woke up with really two thoughts: One is, thank God nothing bad happened, I’m fine, I’ll recover from this. But two, I have two projects that I’ve got to get done. One was the book, and one was this story about a photograph, an Armenian photograph.” After deciding to pursue the story about the photograph first, he completed it in 2014, and the resulting 8,000-word article, “Kiss My Children’s Eyes: A Search for Answers to the Genocide Through One Remarkable Photograph,” was published in the Armenian Weekly.

Stephen Kurkjian
Stephen Kurkjian

“What I think really is driving me is the sense that we, Armenians, lost all of our cultural treasures in the genocide. And I got to realize how important those cultural treasures were in chasing the story about the photograph… What we lost there, in Eastern Turkey, was our connective tissue to one another as Armenians… More than the injustice of it, in the end what I mourned most was how much we lost as far as connecting us to each other.”

Ultimately, Master Thieves is speculative, but it lays out in depth Kurkjian’s theories as to who committed the theft and the circumstances that enabled it. Kurkjian also gently lays blame where it is due, raising questions about the FBI’s refusal to work with Boston and Massachusetts State Police in the investigation, as well the scant resources dedicated to solving the disappearance of the artwork after the initial investigation wound down.

Meticulously researched, Master Thieves offers several contributions to the history of the investigation, including Kurkjian’s exclusive interview with Robert Gentile, who is suspected by the FBI to have or have had possession of some of the paintings, as well as one of the fullest public accounts of the events of the evening of the theft. It also details the frustrations that have plagued the investigation since its outset, particularly the numerous promising leads that wound up being dead ends. Kurkjian fears that the FBI’s latest suspect, Robert Gentile, may be simply another distraction. “My tendency is to think he’s a fraudster, which this story is replete with, people who say they can deliver if you give them something.”

Kurkjian, for his part, believes the original thieves are dead. “But there are people who are around them who know bits and pieces of information, and I think they’re the ones that the FBI is hoping will pick up the phone and call them up and give them the essential tip. But I know what’s going to happen, the FBI will call up the media and say the paintings are back, we’re not telling you anything else. So to me, this is Boston’s last, best secret.”

In addition to his recent research projects, Kurkjian is also involved with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). Master Thieves will be the subject of a May 15 event at St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Mass., beginning at 6 p.m., sponsored by NAASR and the Kurkjian family. The location is one that holds great significance for Kurkjian; it is the church in which his parents were married, and where their wakes were held years later.

Kurkjian’s description of the theft in Master Thieves left a deep impression on one local reader, Shushan Teager, a member of NAASR’s Board of Directors and author of The Krajians of Aintab. “Steve Kurkjian’s renowned skills as an investigative reporter reach new heights in Master Thieves. Not only has he clarified some of the mysteries of the Boston underworld, his vivid description of the thieves in action moved me to tears. I felt I was witnessing a murder.”

While his book may be finished, the story is far from over for Kurkjian. TriStar has already secured the film rights to the book, and plans for a film version by producer Matt Tolmach are underway.

If the paintings are returned, the movie could have quite the plot twist.

Katie Vanadzin

Katie Vanadzin

Katie Vanadzin is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, where she majored in political science and German studies, and where she was also involved in the College’s Armenian Students Association. A native of Winchester, Mass., she has lived in Austria and Germany as well. She writes regularly for The Armenian Weekly.

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