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Head of the FBI’s Art Theft Squad Not Sure if Stolen Gardner Museum Pieces Are Still in U.S.


Almost three decades after thieves stole a half-billion dollars’ worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the head of the FBI’s art theft squad says he’s not sure all of the 13 pieces remain in the United States.

Over the years, FBI agents have travelled to six continents in search of the missing art, which include works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet. The FBI recently conducted x-rays of a home in a western American state where a tipster suggested the art was hidden; there have been a number of highly-publicized searches and digs. All to no avail.

Special Agent Tim Carpenter could not say for sure whether the stolen masterpieces are still somewhere in the United States.

“Perhaps,” Carpenter said during an interview with the Law&Crime Network. “Only perhaps?” he was asked. “Perhaps,” he answered.

Despite this, Carpenter rejected suggestions that the FBI’s investigation of the 1990 theft had gone cold or had been a failure.

“Certainly not, no certainly not,” he said.

Carpenter said finding the stolen Gardner art remains his number one priority as the agent in charge of the 20-person FBI art theft squad. “I don’t think it’s a cold case because we do get a fair amount of information on that case,” he said.

In 2013, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Boston claimed they had determined who stole the art and had a good idea of where it was hidden. But since then, despite a $10 million reward offered by the museum, there have been no arrests and none of the art has been recovered.

“We have had successes, lots of successes, historically with rewards, but it hasn’t really seemed to nudge it loose on this case. So I’m not quite sure what it’s going to take,” Carpenter told the Law&Crime Network.

Whoever stole the art in the brazen break-in on St. Patrick’s Day night in 1990 would no longer face prosecution given the statute of limitations. And federal prosecutors have publicly said they would offer immunity to anyone who would come forward with the stolen pieces now.

“We’re very interested in the safe recovery and the full recovery of all of that artwork,” Carpenter said.

To date, the only physical evidence the FBI has acknowledged recovering are a handful of paint chips that the FBI has said are consistent with a “red lake” paint known to have been used by the Dutch artist Vermeer. His painting, The Concert, is considered the most valuable of the paintings stolen from the Gardner, although there is no direct link between the chips and that particular work.

The chips were sent anonymously to a reporter for the Boston Herald in 1997.

Carpenter says he is holding out hope that the case can be solved before the 30th anniversary of the theft, which would be March 2020.

“I’d like to say that if we could solve that case, I might just up and retire. That might be my swan song,” he said.

Ariel Tu and Nick Lindseth contributed to this report.

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