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22 Years Later, $300 Million Art Theft Investigation Heats Up

Lindsay Nadrich|CNBC Production Associate
Wednesday, 16 May 2012 | 1:59 PM ET

The investigation into a decades-old, $300 million art heist has heated up after authorities searched the property of an alleged mobster prosecutors suspect may be linked to the theft.

Vermeer's "The Concert"
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Vermeer's "The Concert"

In March 1990, two men disguised as Boston police officers gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museumand stole 13 masterpieces simply by telling a lie. The two men claimed they were responding to a call.

“There was a ring at the bell at the side door, the employees’ entrance, which the guard had a camera on. He looked up, and he saw two men dressed in police uniforms,” Stephen Kurkjian, former editor and reporter at The Boston Globe, told CNBC’s “American Greed.”

The security guard on duty broke protocol and buzzed the men in through the museum’s security door. Once inside, the thieves claimed to have recognized the guard and said there was a warrant out for his arrest.

“The lone security guard at the desk was told by the two thieves that they wanted him to come around from the desk, so that they could have a good look at him and he did that,” Kurkjian said.

However, when the guard stepped away from the desk, he also moved away from the only alarm, according to a report released by the museum. The thieves then asked the guard to call the other security guard on duty to the desk, which he did.

“Once they had both of the guards under control, they tied them up and led them down to the basement, where they spent the night,” FBI Agent Geoffrey Kelly said.

With both guards tied up in the basement and no alarm to alert the outside world, the pair of thieves had free reign of the museum. After spending 81 minutes in the museum, the men walked out the door with an estimated $300 million in irreplaceable art, along with the surveillance video of the crime.

Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

Among the missing artwork are three paintings by Rembrandt including, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” five drawings by Edgar Degas, and “The Concert” by Vermeer.

“Vermeer’s “The Concert” is probably the single-most valuable missing artwork today,” art crime expert Noah Charney said.

“When this robbery occurred in 1990, overnight it became the largest art heist in U.S. history,” Kelly said.

Still more than two decades later, the heist remains the single largest recorded property theft.

Last week, authorities searched the home of 75-year-old Robert Gentile, a reputed Mafia member who has been held on drug charges and is believed to have information about the art theft, prosecutors said, according to The Boston Globe.

Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said the FBI led the search at Gentile’s home in Connecticut and had a warrant allowing them to search the property for weapons, the Globe reported.

However, McGuigan told the paper the search for weapons was a ruse, “we all know what they are actually looking for, and they are looking for the paintings.’’ Gentile denies any connection to the art theft.

The Globe reported that Gentile’s lawyer said authorities used a ground-penetrating radar device, specialized dogs, and even a ferret to search the property Thursday. Two guns were found, McGuigan told The Associated Press.

No artwork was found, Reuters reported, citing a source familiar with the search.

“While the Gardner Museum continues to thrive, the investigation into the 1990 theft remains very active,” Anthony Amore, the Gardner's security director, said in a statement, “We will continue to work every day to recover the stolen masterworks.”

The museum is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the works' safe return. The frames of the missing artwork have been hanging empty in the museum.

“We decided collectively to put them back up in order to observe a mourning, so people could recognize this loss and also so people would be vigilant about the need to get them back,” Museum Director Anne Hawley said.

The Gardner heist remains on the FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes List.

Anyone with information on the stolen artwork is encouraged to contact Amore directly at 617-278-5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org.

To hear the full story of the Gardner Museum Heist, watch "American Greed" Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.

-Reuters contributed to this story.

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