"Can we get Marty Walsh in front of it? Or Cardinal O'Malley?" a frustrated Boston Globe Spotlight reporter Stephen Kurkjian asked the overflow audience that had come to listen to him talk about his almost two-decades' long investigation into the unsolved theft of 13 priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In describing his disappointment over the lack of resolution after a 26-year hunt for the art, Kurkjian wanted ideas on how to re-ignite the public's interest. He recalled a French detective who told him that when nine priceless Impressionists paintings, including a masterpiece by Monet, were stolen in 1985 from the Marmottan Museum in Paris, it was felt as a loss for every Parisian. "We got tip after tip after tip," the detective had said. "For you," he added, referring to the Gardner's art heist, "it's a cold case." Five years after the Paris theft, the French art was recovered, in Corsica. Twenty-six years after the Isabella Stewart Gardner plunder, the question in Boston still is "where is the art work?" "We don't feel this," lamented Kurkjian. "How can we get Boston to feel it?"
For Kurkjian, whose deeply reported Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the Greatest Art Heist in the World, came out last year, the loss of this art is personal. His father, an artist, was inspired by the Old Masters of the Gardner Museum. Two cousins, classical pianists, regularly performed at the Gardner's popular Sunday concert series. Kurkjian himself attended Boston Latin, across the street from the museum, and revered the extraordinary collection that resulted from the grand vision of its 19th-century founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner. "She put those pieces on the walls for us, " he said. "She filled up her houses on Beacon Street with European art, but didn't stop there. She understood civilizations survive because of their artistic achievement. She wanted to give the United States a tradition it didn't have yet. When the museum opened in 1903, it was free. She wanted to inspire America into the arts."
Kurkjian was introduced by former Boston Globe reporter M.E. Malone, who was hired by him "fresh out of college." Even as she described him as a Founding Father of the Spotlight Team, a Pulitzer-prize winner who knows Boston and what closets which skeletons are in, she assured the audience Kurkjian also applied his investigative skills to less glamorous subjects, such as when in 1982 the Registry of Motor Vehicles decided to replace free driver's license manuals with ones that cost $1. "Steve thought that was outrageous," she told the laughing audience. Kurkjian quickly discovered there were still 505,470 free manuals in the DMV's warehouse, as well as piles of them under the counters and in closets of some DMV offices. Within a short time during which DMV personnel could not find a logical explanation for the charge, the Boston Globe reported that the DMV had made free driver's license manuals available again.
Of all the accolades bestowed on Kurkjian, his father, the artist, told him that solving "Boston's last best secret" would be the crowning achievement of his career. "I thought the 25th anniversary would be the year," Kurkjian said. "There was a lot of publicity. My book came out. Ann Hawley, the Gardner museum director who labored with this loss, retired," and there was now a $5 million reward for the recovery. In addition, a new Boston FBI prosecutor reviewed videotapes of the night before the theft, and discovered that a stranger was let into the museum 24 hours earlier, against the rules. "We hoped for an essential tip," Kurkjian said after reporting it. But none has led to the discovery of the art, yet. "These artworks were for the haves and the have-nots," Kurkjian stressed. "Our kids haven't seen them. We have to rally the troops. How do you motivate them?"
The next South End Writes author event coming up on Tuesday, March 8, at 6:30 PM, when sociologist and South End resident Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargrove Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard, will come to discuss her most recent book, Exits: The Endings That Set Us Free.