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A $500 million museum heist, 27 years later

Anthony Amore. (Courtesy photo)

 

LYNN — Twenty-seven years ago, on March 18, the world’s largest art heist occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Two thieves made off with 13 masterpieces valued at $500 million, including Vermeer’s “The Concert” and three Rembrandts, including his only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

The works have never been recovered, despite the offer of a $5 million reward for information leading to their safe return and promises of immunity. No one has ever been charged with the crime. But the investigation remains active.

Anthony Amore’s job is to retrieve the paintings. The Swampscott resident, who has written two books about art theft, is the museum’s director of security and its chief investigator. He will discuss “The Story of Stolen Art” Saturday at a fundraiser for the Lynn Cultural District at the Pick Up Modern store on Exchange Street.

“Some people think a rich billionaire in some far-away land arranged to have the paintings stolen and has them in his house. That’s Hollywood, not reality,” said Amore, chatting over a venti iced coffee at Starbucks in Vinnin Square. “On Saturday, I will talk about the myth of Hollywood and what art theft really is and how it happens.”

“Forgeries and art crime is a multi-billion-dollar industry, behind only drug and gun trafficking,” said Amore, a former assistant director with Homeland Security/TSA, where he helped to rebuild security at Logan Airport after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

So, what does he think happened at the Gardner that night in 1990 when the thieves, dressed as police officers, tied up the guards, cut the paintings from their frames and escaped with their bounty?

“It’s an ongoing investigation, so I’ll speak in general terms,” said Amore. “Most likely, local criminals did it; it was like just another heist crime for them. And most likely the paintings are somewhere in the local area. I believe there are people out there who know where they are.

“For more than a decade I’ve been thinking night and day about how to get the art back,” added Amore. “My No. 1 duty is securing the museum as it is today. No. 2 is looking for the stolen paintings. I work closely with the FBI on a daily basis. Geoff Kelly is my partner in the FBI. It’s beyond a job for us … it’s an obsession. We’re not sitting back waiting for calls to come in. This is a very active investigation. I just want to see  those picture frames filled. We’re very earnest in our offer of $5 million and immunity under the right conditions.

“And when we get them back, I’ll put every bit of effort into making sure they are secure at the Gardner forever.”

In 2011, Amore co-authored with former Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg the true-crime bestseller Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists.  His second book,The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries in the Art World, was published in 2015 and was a New York Times bestseller.   

What about the rumors that a man from Swampscott was involved in the Gardner heist?

“At one time a man from Swampscott, Brian McDevitt, was considered a suspect. He had already served time for an attempt to rob the Hyde museum in Glens Falls, New York, in 1980. The Hyde and Gardner heists involved similar M.O.s,” said Amore. McDevitt denied any involvement in the Gardner robbery. He died in 2004 at age 43.

And wasn’t a Lynn man considered a suspect?

“A published report said that Robert Guarente played a role. He was a Revere, Lynn guy who was rumored to be involved,” said Amore, declining to elaborate. The Boston Globe reported that the widow of Guarente, a friend of crime boss Carmello Merlino, told authorities that she saw her husband give Robert Gentile a painting in 2003. The FBI believed Gentile had ties to the Boston faction of Philadelphia’s Mafia. Gentile’s Connecticut home was searched. Nothing was found.

Laurence Howard, owner of Pick Up Modern & More, said Amore and his family dropped into her funky, unique home goods store in Central Square one day and was impressed with both her boutique and the downtown’s active arts community. He offered to talk about his books at the store, and Howard will use the opportunity as a fundraiser.

“The arts community has been a welcome and supportive spirit to all of us business owners,” said Howard. “Their success is better for all of us. This is another way I can pay it back. I’m encouraged by what is happening downtown.”

Amore will discuss “The Story of Stolen Art” at Pick Up Modern & More, 68 Exchange St., Lynn, Saturday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Admission is $10 ($5 seniors) and all proceeds will benefit the Lynn Cultural District. An RSVP is required at laurence@pickupmodern.com

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