Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist
In a secret meeting in 1981, a low-level Boston thief gave career gangster Ralph Rossetti the tip of a lifetime: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was a big score waiting to happen. Though its collections included priceless artworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and others, its security was cheap, mismanaged, and out of date. And now, it seemed, the whole Boston criminal underworld knew it.
Nearly a decade passed before the Museum museum was finally hit. But when it finally happened, the theft quickly became one of the most infamous art heists in history: thirteen works of art valued at up to $500 million, by some of the most famous artists in the world, were taken. The Boston FBI took control of the investigation, but twenty-five years later the case is still unsolved and the artwork is still missing.
Stephen Kurkjian, one of the top investigative reporters in the country, has been working this case for over nearly twenty years. In Master Thieves, he sheds new light on some of the Gardner’s most abiding mysteries. Why would someone steal these paintings, only to leave them hidden for twenty-five years? And why, if one of the top crime bosses in the city knew about this score in 1981, did the theft happen in 1990? What happened in those intervening years? And what might all this have to do with Boston’s notorious gang wars of the 1980s?
Kurkjian’s reporting is already responsible for some of the biggest breaks in this story, including a meticulous reconstruction of what happened at the Museum museum that fateful night. Now Master Thieves will reveal the identities of those he believes plotted the heist, the motive for the crime, and the details that the FBI has refused to discuss. Taking you on a journey deep into the gangs of Boston, Kurkjian emerges with the most complete and compelling version of this story ever told.
said it would be at the museum itself. Then a previously helpful investigator, with whom I had been sharing information on the case for what seemed like ages, suddenly distanced himself from me. When I heard that some of the brass within the FBI were considering having the press conference at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, I tracked down my source and pressed him. “On a scale of one to ten, what number would you give to the importance of what they’re going to say tomorrow?” I asked him,
year in an abandoned Dorchester parking lot after the owner refused to pay the ransom. Despite the steady stream of thefts, these losses were treated with chilling nonchalance by law enforcement. As Daniel Golden reported in 1989 in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, only two police officers in the US investigated art thefts full-time: one in Los Angeles and the other in New York. The FBI, which is called in on all thefts of goods worth $50,000 or more, does not have a single agent concentrating
often in the months before his death. The morning he was found dead in his apartment building, it was Merlino and an associate who summoned the Quincy Fire Department when they were unable to gain entry to the unit on their own. Maybe it was to buy cocaine to feed his growing addiction that drew Reissfelder to Merlino’s garage, or maybe it was to meet with other cronies including Turner, Pappas, and Guarente, whom law enforcement often found there and whose names have been associated with the
gangs also knew how vulnerable the Gardner Museum was to being robbed. Bobby Donati was the guy in Vincent Ferrara’s crew who had always had his eyes on the Gardner, mostly because of his longstanding relationship with Myles Connor, Boston’s legendary art thief. Meanwhile, the Salemme gang knew about the woeful security guarding the Gardner’s riches from members of the Rossetti family, who had of course learned of it through master thief Louis Royce. Royce had told two people—Stephen Rossetti,
Museum, 1–2 annual budget of, 36 Blue Room, 25, 35, 53 central air conditioning and ventilation system in, 35 climate-control system in, 36 coat room in, 36 construction of, 221 daytime heist (1970) and, 50 Dutch Room, 48–51 finances of, 36 fund-raising efforts of, 34, 35 insurance protection for artwork and, 34 insurance protection from liability for patrons and, 34 investment dividends and interest and, 36 management problems of, 36 million-dollar funding for renovation of, 34