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The Gardner Museum Heist – One Step Closer?

December 10, 2021
interior photograph of the Gardner Museum at the theft. Several empty frames on the floor.
Gardner Museum

Last week, Paul Calantropo was interviewed by the Boston Globe about his time as a jeweler. Calantropo claims that in the spring of 1990, his acquaintance Bobby Donati came to him to have something appraised. Calantopo, now aged 70, is opening up about this because he had previously feared for his life. Donati was associated with Boston’s Italian mafia, the Patriarca family, and was known to visit Calantropo mainly so he could appraise jewelry, diamonds, and other valuables. On this particular day, though, Donati came to Calantropo with the stolen Gardner finial. According to the story, Calantropo told his friend that it was effectively worthless since it was a known stolen piece. Donati left, and the two never saw each other again as Donati was shot and killed the following year.

I wrote about Boston’s Gardner Museum a few months ago, specifically how one of its paintings, Titian’s Rape of Europa, was reunited with the other works from its original series. But I never really mentioned why the Gardner Museum is particularly famous. In the early hours of March 18, 1990, thirteen works valued at around $200 million total (or about $500 million today) were stolen from the museum by two men dressed as police officers. The Gardner Museum theft is the biggest single museum heist ever recorded, and it remains unsolved. Among the haul were several sketches by Degas, three works by Rembrandt, and a Jan Vermeer interior scene entitled The Concert. The Vermeer is estimated to comprise half of the total value of the stolen works and is alleged to be the most valuable stolen object in the world. One of the thirteen items taken from the Gardner Museum in 1990 was a finial, or a metal object meant to serve as ornamentation. Finials can be very large to top domes and roofs, while others can be small and used to decorate things like a lampshade or, in this case, a flagpole. The Gardner finial is shaped like an eagle, and was used to top French flagpoles during the Napoleonic era. It was this unassuming gilded bird that caused some stirrings recently about a new lead in the Gardner theft investigation.

Interior with a woman playing the piano and two other people singing and playing music - Vermeer - The Concert - Gardner Museum

Some investigators have pointed the finger at Whitey Bulger for having organized the heist. The Irish gangs in Boston had extensive ties to the police and the Irish Republican Army, giving Bulger both means and motive. But Bobby Donati, whom Paul Calantropo claims brought him the Gardner finial, is also one of the top suspects among amateur sleuths. Though Donati does not match the description of either of the two men who witnesses say pulled off the heist, Donati likely organized but did not directly participate in the robbery. According to Stephen Kurkjian and his 2015 book Master Thieves, Donati masterminded the theft to use the stolen artworks as leverage, hoping to help free Boston mafioso Vincent Ferrara from prison.

The Gardner Museum heist has become ingrained in American culture, with references featured in The Simpsons, The Blacklist, and Shameless, among other pop culture touchstones. Many people follow the developments of the case almost like a new episode of their favorite show. In 2013, the FBI stated they had identified who had pulled off the robbery, yet chose to withhold the culprits’ identities. Though the authorities have never publicly named Bobby Donati as a suspect, he remains a fan favorite among journalists and true crime lovers, with Calantropo’s recent admission only adding fuel to their fire.