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Can Whitey Bulger help solve biggest art heist in U.S. history?

June 24, 2011 |  7:06 am

WhiteybulgerThis post has been corrected. Please see the note at the bottom for details.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole a Vermeer, five Degas and three Rembrandts.

The masterpieces and four other paintings stolen that day are estimated to be worth more than $500 million. Two decades later, the case remains stubbornly unsolved. It has been called "the holy grail of art crime."

But with the arrest Wednesday of notorious Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, many in the art world are now asking: Could it provide a break in the greatest art heist in American history?

Photos: The hunt for James "Whitey" Bulger

Rumors have long swirled that Bulger, the head of the city's powerful Irish American mob at the time, may have played a role -- or must have known who did.

Some have speculated that he stashed the stolen masterpieces away to use as a "get out of jail free card" if he was ever caught.

Others think he sent the paintings to allies in the Irish Republican Army to use as a bargaining chip.

The Gardner Museum had no comment Thursday on the arrest other than a Tweet saying, "Until a recovery is made, our work continues."

Many who have studied the case are similarly skeptical about Bulger’s direct involvement. Last year, investigators in the Gardner case said there was no evidence in the mountains of wiretaps and other records to link Bulger to the crime.

"He was quite a powerful figure at the time of the heist," said Ulrich Boser, author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft."

"But his MO was to collect criminal taxes, not to organize fresh crimes," Boser said.

 Document: Massachusetts federal indictment

As Boser writes in his book, after Bulger became an informant for the Boston FBI, he helped federal agents take out his Italian competitors, the Cosa Nostra, leaving him the uncontested king of the underworld in Boston.

By 1990, his focus was on collecting protection money from lesser underworld figures, such as bookies and drug dealers.

"To organize something like the Gardner heist doesn’t make sense," Boser said.

Still, Boser and others familiar with the case believe that Bulger may have important information to contribute. Little happened in Boston in those days without Bulger knowing about it.

"If he was interested, he could have found out what was going on," said Robert Wittman, the former head of the FBI's art squad who helped investigate the Gardner theft. "I think there's a good chance he knows something."

In Wittman's memoir, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures," he recounts a botched undercover sting operation to recover several of the Gardner paintings from two French mobsters living in South Florida.

"We were two weeks away from getting the Rembrandt," Wittman recalled wistfully.

It was one of many occasions when the FBI was foiled in an effort to recover the stolen art.

 Video: Mobster was target of new FBI campaign

The only high-profile case more frustrating may well have been the search for Bulger, which ended suddenly Wednesday with his arrest in Santa Monica.

"There was an entire squad in the Boston FBI office called the Whitey Bulger squad,” Wittman said. "They spent 20 years looking for him all over the world, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to find him. The whole time he was in California."

Could the Gardner heist soon come to a similarly sudden close?

The case is certainly on a long list of things the FBI is hoping to talk to Bulger about, Wittman said.

For Boser, the real lesson of the Bulger arrest is the importance of publicity in keeping a cold case alive.

"Many people thought this case was over," he said, referring to the Bulger case. "It was the recent publicity that made the difference. When we think about the Gardner case, publicity will make the difference too.

"Someone somewhere knows what happened to those paintings."

[For the Record, 9:10 a.m. June 24: A previous version of this post misspelled Ulrich Boser's last name as Bosser.]


Complete Times coverage: Get the latest on Whitey Bulger's arrest

Whitey Bulger also wanted in murders in Florida, Oklahoma

-- Jason Felch

Photo: Whitey Bulger. Credit: WBUR News