Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Billboard targets art thieves
Billboard targets art thieves BY CINDY STAUFFER, Staff Writer
If you have a Rembrandt hanging over your sofa, the FBI would like to talk to you.
If you have seen a Rembrandt hanging over your neighbor's sofa, give them a ring.
In fact, if you even know anybody who knows anything about a certain group of Rembrandt, Degas, Manet or Vermeer artworks, call 1-800-CALL-FBI.
A billboard along westbound Route 30, near the Greenfield Road exit, is flashing that hotline number, along with images of stolen artwork, along with an enticement of a $5 million award.
A pair of bold thieves snatched 13 rare pieces of artwork 23 years ago from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in what is widely regarded as one of the boldest and most sophisticated art thefts in history.
So why is the FBI trolling for tips almost 400 miles to the south, in Lancaster County?
The answer is a colorful one worthy of a caper movie, perhaps a mashup of "Ocean's Eleven" and "The Sopranos" that art experts hope has a happy ending.
"Someone may be in possession of the artwork who may not necessarily have been involved in the art theft in the first place," said Katherine Gulotta, spokeswoman for the Boston division of the FBI. "We're hoping that one tip comes in that is able to point us in the right direction to be able to recover the artwork."
Local art experts say it's fascinating to see the resurgence of interest in the Gardner heist, especially with the billboard appearing in our own backyard.
"It's intrigue," said Claire Giblin, curator at The Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College.
Anne Lampe, director of the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, said, "I think it's really interesting they put those signs up in Lancaster County.
"I do think we have become such a society that moves around a lot, that they are probably spreading a wide net."
Early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers gained entry to the Gardner museum, bound two guards and systematically went through the museum, taking the artwork, including a Chinese vase and a finial from a pole that supported a Napoleonic silk flag.
The theft remains unsolved, though the museum has left the artwork's empty frames in place to remind people of the loss.
In recent weeks, the case was revived with the FBI's announcement that it had identified the thieves as "members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England," according to an FBI news release.
Agents also said they knew where the works of art had traveled after the theft, going from Boston to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region.
"We have established at some point in time that they were brought to Philadelphia to be sold," Gulotta said.
A story in the Boston Globe connected the theft to an aging, alleged mobster, Robert Gentile, who lives in Connecticut and supposedly had ties to a Philadelphia Mafia crew that ran rackets in Boston. Agents have searched Gentile's property but the FBI has declined comment on any connection.
In the meantime, the FBI recently placed more than 35 billboards, mostly in Pennsylvania, to enlist the public's help in finding the stolen artwork. The billboards include 25 in the Philadelphia region, as well as others in Lancaster, Reading, Harrisburg, Altoona, Scranton and Pittsburgh. Two billboards also were placed in Connecticut.
The Lancaster billboard went up last week, and will be here until today.
Agents believe whoever originally purchased the stolen artwork may have moved from the Philadelphia area, or possibly sold it to someone else who may not know the connection to the heist, Gulotta said.
"I have hoped for years that these things will be returned," said Thomas Cook, a local art collector and chairman of the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, who does work with the Gardner. "Every time I see the empty frames, it just breaks my heart."
The owner of the artwork probably knows it was stolen, said Lampe, saying it seems unlikely that someone unwittingly purchased a Vermeer or Rembrandt.
"There are people who have all kinds of money and have the lust for something like that," Giblin said.
Now it may take a chatty neighbor, a curious cleaning lady or a well-placed friend to contact federal authorities.
Lee Lovett, manager of the Red Raven Art Company in Lancaster, hopes the story ends soon.
"It's a great mystery novel," she said. "Nobody knew where to look. Now, after all of these years, maybe someone will have been to this person's home, seen it and it all will connect."
nFBI hopes to capture crooks who stole paintings from Boston museum in 1990.