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Interview: Ulrich Boser

Going after the Gardner thieves
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  March 24, 2009


As we reach the 19th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art objects — among them Vermeer's The Concert, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and Manet's Chez Tortoni — from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there's been a renewed effort to identify the thieves and retrieve the Gardner treasures. Ulrich Boser's new book, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, proposes an identification of the two men who actually entered the museum. He's been in town reading last month and this; I caught up with him at the Parker House.

Let's go back to the night of the Gardner Museum theft, March 18, 1990. The thieves are in their car, outside the museum, and "Jerry Stratberg" — your name for the high-school senior who saw them — says he got a good look. Was the light on in the car?
I don't recall the answer to that very specific question. What I do recall is that the car was sitting fairly close to the street lamp. So there's the entrance to Palace Road, the Palace Road door. Slightly to the left there's a street lamp.

What surprised me about this account is that you have kids who are underage and have been drinking, and yet Jerry and his friend Nancy get close enough to a car with what appear to be police officers for Jerry to report that the man in the driver's seat had "almost Asian" eyes.
I think my understanding from my reporting is that the disconnect was what really surprised them. An unmarked Crown Vic would be one thing you might see police officers in, but in sort of an older-model hatchback — that was what was of note to them.

Wouldn't you think that the thieves would avoid parking near a light?
My understanding is that they were just beyond the street lamp. To me, the Gardner heist is a mystery and there are mysteries within the mystery. Why did they steal the finial? Why did they steal the ku?

There are lot of things about the Gardner theft, little things, perhaps unimportant things, that don't add up.
I try to make this clear in the book: at least in my other reporting, you have facts that are generally well accepted. And in this case it's been a long time and you have a lot of slippery characters. Those two things mix together to create a difficult topic for investigators to approach.

What you wish is that you could call in Columbo.
We're not able to call in Columbo.

How good can we expect Jerry's memory to be 19 years later?
I think that the biggest part of that is not the showing of the photographs to him. It was his description of the police officers I think — actually the thieves — that is really key here, because he gave a very specific description. It wasn't even like, "a well-built guy"; he said the man had Asian eyes. And he got more specific than that: he said one Caucasian and one Asian eye. That to me is very detailed, that's something he gave immediately afterward, so I feel that's really far more in depth than the IDing of the photographs, which is . . . you know, I'm not a police investigator. I'm sure there are methods to doing that appropriately. There was an article in Slate in the past couple of days that said eyewitness-identifying people is a slippery thing. But the specific description that he gave seemed to indicate some confidence.

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1 Comments / Add Comment

Steve Keller

Regarding the question about whether the guard could have defeated the motion detectors and whether the guard could have gotten past it, I want to comment. I was the security consultant to the museum prior to the theft and had made recommendations for security improvements which the museum intended to correct in an upcoming renovation that subsequently did not occur due to the theft. I was called in to talk to the FBI briefly (in spite of the fact that they were not at all interested in talking to me). My firm consults with hundreds of museums, designs high tech security systems for museums, I was very familiar with the brand of security system the museum used, and had extensive experience in testing alarm systems for museums. During my visit to the museum after the theft, I tested the two motion detectors that were involved in the protection of the Manet and could not get past them. I crawled on my belly on the floor, moved at varying speeds during different tests, crawled under tables, and tried every trick I knew and the detectors caught me every time. I new the detector model to be state of the art at the time and highly reliable and I asked the manufacturer what the mathematical chance that they had failed momentarily could be. I don't recall the numbers but they were well over one in a million. This means that someone would have to have defeated one detector twice (in and out) or two detectors once each (pass through one door and out another). It seems to me that defeating the detectors would be virtually impossible.

Knowing what I know about detectors in general I can say that the guard could not have defeated the detector by any known means such as masking them without activating the detector in doing so or in removing the mask from the device or leaving evidence which I did not find. The detectors were electronically supervised so disconnection was not possible without causing an alarm. Turning them off would create a record.  Nevertheless, someone entered the room and removed a painting. This tells me that it possibly had been removed by someone before the alarms were activated or by a guard who was authorized to move through the gallery on patrol although I have no knowledge as to whether this happened and am not making accusations or implying guilt of anyone.

I have always felt that this was an inside job. I have my own idea of who did it, or at least who on the museum's staff could have been involved but I was never given an opportunity to learn enough inside facts to know if my theory is possible or not. Since I can't prove my theory I can't say more. But I feel that if the FBI interviewed everyone as poorly as they interviewed me, it's no wonder this remains unsolved. As a former police Detective in a major city and someone who knew infinitey more than they did about art crimes, I felt that they were not interested in what I might be able to tell them because they knew it all already. This may be unfair to the investigative team in general but when I offered my theory they simply told me that it was not possible and had been ruled out. As I recall, they cited polygraph evidence to discount my theory and just blew off my other advice and questions. 

Which guard patrolled and which sat at the desk monitoring alarms and CCTV? Which guard was tied up most distant from the exit door and which was tied up nearest the exit door and might have actually exited during the theft to help the crooks? Which guard passed the polygraph exam and which, if any, had a questionable exam? Are there any common denominators here? I don't know. I'm just asking. Did one guard fit the "profile" of a guard and one did not, such as being overqualified? Again, I don't know but it would be interesting to explore these questions. If the guards are innocent they deserve to have their names cleared.

 Finally, I do not believe in the Dr. No Theory. Certainly it is possible but I feel it is unlikely. People steal masterpieces primarily for one reason--to extort them back to the museum or insurer, the one thing they really couldn't do in this case until much too late to not get caught. Art criminals hope that the theft will be kept secret until they sell the art back to the museum for a ransom in a quick quiet transaction. 

In nearly every major art theft I have been involved with, someone who was not involved tried to scam the museum into giving them money even though they didn't have the art. It is common.

Good interview. I plan to read the book. 

Steve Keller

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Posted: March 25 2009 at 3:32 AM
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