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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Stephen Kurkjian discusses the Gardner Museum Theft and the Podcast "Last Seen"



In 2018, The Boston Globe and Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, teamed up to create an investigative crime podcast, "Last Seen" about the infamous Gardner Museum art theft of 1990. Bernard Langs interviews one of the podcast producers and award-winning reporters, Stephen Kurkjian, who had a recognized career at the Globe.
Culture Corner
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Stephen Kurkjian discusses the Gardner Museum
Theft and the Podcast “Last Seen
Be r n i e La n g S
At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, two
thieves disguised as policemen gained access
to Bostons Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
and made o with thirteen pieces of art, now
valued at $500 million. e stolen works in-
cluded Rembrandts e Storm on the Sea of
Galilee and A Lady and Gentlemen in Black,
Vermeer’s e Concert, and Manet’s Chez
Tortoni. Not one piece grabbed that night has
been located despite the oer of millions in
reward money for any credible information
leading to the recovery of the paintings.
In 2018, e Boston Globe and Boston’s
public radio station, WBUR, teamed up to
create an investigative crime podcast about
the the. “Last Seen” is a fascinating dive into
how the heist was pulled o and follows up on
many potential leads about where these mas-
terpieces may now be stashed and who may
have been behind the heist. “Last Seen” boasts
riveting audio of interviews and discussions
with many of the key players surrounding the
crime. e podcast audience also listens in
on conversations with mob gures made by
agents wearing wires, including those made by
the FBI’s longtime art-crimes investigator, Bob
Wittman. e search veers o in a multitude
of directions as ideas are revealed and tested,
mixing intense drama with unexpected mo-
ments of emotion and humor.
I reached out to e Boston Globe for
comments about “Last Seen” and they di-
rected me to Stephen Kurkjian, a retired Globe
reporter and one of the show’s co-producers
and lead investigators. A three-time winner
of the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Kurkjian is the au-
thor of the book, Master ieves: e Boston
Gangsters Who Pulled O the Worlds Greatest
Art Heist, which continues his investigation
into the Gardner the. Aer a quick chat on
the phone, I emailed Mr. Kurkjian questions
about “Last Seen” and his involvement in the
Bernie Langs: e nal episode of “Last
Seen” is a panel discussion with you and others
who worked on the production and reporting.
You discussed your personal history as a Bos-
ton native, the son of an Armenian immigrant
who became a commercial artist and taught
you about the value of Bostons cultural trea-
sures. You explain, “...this is the artwork of the
ages. Everything passes. Art endures. And this
is our art. Mrs. Gardner put those on the wall
for us, put them on the wall for my father.” Can
you elaborate further about your obsession
with recovering the art?
Stephen Kurkjian: I don’t see myself
as “obsessed” by the Gardner story as much
as I do doing what any investigative reporter
would do—following a compelling story that
has great meaning and purpose to their city.
As an investigative reporter, especially one
who grew up in Boston, I am drawn to sto-
ries that have “purpose” for the community.
Mrs. Gardner had assembled this extraordi-
nary collection for a transcendent reason—to
motivate all Americans to be inspired by ar-
tistic achievement. She understood, having
traveled the world over, that the civilizations
that survived in time were not those that had
the strongest military or economic might but
those that valued art, be it paintings, statuary,
tapestry, music, etc. While America was be-
coming a world power during the Industrial
Revolution, she did not see us gaining an ap-
preciation for art and she wanted to do some-
thing about it. at is why when she opened
the museum she insisted that attendance be
free of charge—except for a donation, if possi-
ble—and she encouraged local schools to send
class aer class to the museum so youngsters
could be inspired by her art. On the personal
side, my father, Anooshavan Kurkjian, a refu-
gee from the Armenian Genocide, was one
of countless art students who visited the mu-
seum daily so he could study the techniques
of the artists. And though he was proud of the
results of my investigative reporting in other
areas, he was especially pleased when I turned
my sights to the Gardner case. “You have to
stir the conscience of the community for it to
understand the fullness of what was lost here,
he stressed.
BL: e podcast covers how you and
others follow-up each credible lead. e Bos-
Courtyard of the Gardner Museum in Boston.
Photo Courtesy of Mr. Kurkjian
Stephen Kurkjian
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
ton FBI refused to speak on the record in reply
to your queries. One can’t help but speculate
about why they repeatedly dropped the ball in
this case, eectively ruining some of the un-
dercover eorts and remaining secretive when
they should have mobilized the city’s residents
to assist in identifying suspects. Is it possible
that the FBI killed leads about the the for ne-
farious or duplicitous reasons?
SK: Following this story is dicult
enough and I’ve sought to avoid chasing con-
spiracy theories. at being said, it is also true
that the FBI has not covered itself with glory
in pursuing the case. Yes, the agents assigned
to the case have done so with diligence, but
my complaint is that the agency has failed to
act creatively in its investigation. ey have re-
stricted other agencies, especially the Massa-
chusetts State Police and Boston Police, from
playing a leadership role on the case. at was
regrettable, especially at the start of the investi-
gation, as these other agencies would have had
valuable sources and resources to put to the
eort. Why? Likely because the agency didn’t
want to jeopardize its condential intelligence
to these other agencies in fear leaks might hap-
pen. Also, I think at the outset the FBI believed
that the case would be solved quickly—either
through an arrest or an exchange that gained
the arts’ recovery. And the FBI and U.S. attor-
ney’s oce didn’t want to share the glory that
would come from such a recovery with any
lesser agencies.
While it may not point to a conspiracy, I
remain intrigued as to how the FBI could have
mued the investigation at several key points.
Why not focus on [museum guard] Abath
more widely and intensively at the probe’s
outset? More recently, why release a tape in
August 2015 that seemed intent on nding
the identity of a stranger who was allowed
into the museum the night before the the,
and disregard the outreach of several former
staers who willingly told me that it was not
a suspicious entry at all and identied him as
the former security deputy director? How did
the FBI misplace key forensic evidence taken
from the scene of the crime that was not avail-
able decades later when ocials wanted to do
advanced DNA testing on the material? But
my sense is that taken together these amount
not to a conspiracy to impair the investiga-
tion rather than a lack of expert and strategic
thinking about how to advance it.
BL: “Last Seen” grabs the audience from
the very rst episodes. When you tracked
down the guard, Rick Abath, living in a shack
in Vermont, was that an important nd for
you, when you discussed the suspicion that he
may have been the “inside man” in the the?
SK: I did that interview with Abath,
and taped it, for a prole I was doing on him
for e Boston Globe, not the podcast. He was
willing to speak—for the rst time, on the re-
cord—as he was thinking then of coming for-
ward with a book on his involvement with the
case. But I had interviewed him many times in
the years before that, since 2005 in fact, when I
originally found him living in Vermont. I had
spent the entire day trying to nd his where-
abouts in that city, and when I nally found his
house, a tiny cabin on a remote hillside, only
the moonlight led me to his front door. Inter-
estingly, he wouldn’t let me in but agreed to an
interview in a city tavern. at was an exciting
interview, as for the rst time I was learning
details of the the that the FBI and the mu-
seum had never made public.
Included in it was how Abath acknowl-
edged his two grievous errors in letting the
thieves into the museum. He thought some
kids drunk from the St. Patrick’s Day celebra-
tion had jumped the iron fence behind the
museum and were possibly causing damage
to the Gardner’s rear premises…he fell for the
thieves’ ruse…he feared hed be arrested and
miss the Grateful Dead concert that he had a
ticket for in Hartford later that night. But he
was convincing in his assertions of innocence,
that he was not part of any robbery scheme,
nor could he recall ever giving security secrets
to any gangster-types who could have used
them to pull o the heist. I have detailed other
reasons that raise suspicions about Abaths ac-
tions that night in my book, Master ieves,
but the FBI has never had enough to arrest
him for involvement in the crime.
BL: My own theory about the the had
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt, stolen in 1990 from the Gardner Museum.
always been that it was nanced by an eccen-
tric collector utilizing mobsters to grab the art
for his private collection. “Last Seen” destroys
the wealthy villain mastermind idea making
it clear that this was a well-planned the by
seasoned criminals. Can you explain why you
know that this is the scenario that makes the
most sense?
SK: No one “knows” anything about
this robbery. No one knows for sure who did
it, how they conspired to do it, or what hap-
pened to any of the art work. My thinking is
all informed by hard reporting and deductive
reasoning built o that reporting. If the the
had been engineered by a “Dr. No”-type crim-
inal, an oligarch-type or arch criminal, who
commissioned the robbery in hopes of gain-
ing a beloved masterpiece, then I doubt that
the thieves would have been so rough in how
they treated the works they stole. Remember,
all paintings were broken out of their frames,
and the two large Rembrandts were cut out of
their backings. I’m thinking the mastermind
who may have commissioned the the would
have been very upset by such treatment. Also,
with thirteen pieces being stolen, you would
think that if they had been divided up, that
someone would step forward or screw up so
that the authorities would get a trail to a re-
But the feds told me in 2010 that the
FBI had not had a single “proof of life sight-
ing” of any of the thirteen pieces, which in FBI
lingo means that there had not been a photo
taken of the pieces showing their whereabouts
since the the or a single piece of forensic evi-
dence, which would show that a person could
back up their claim that they had access to
or knowledge of the whereabouts of the sto-
len pieces. Which leads me to the belief that
the pieces were stolen as a potential “get out
of jail free” card for someone already in jail or
someone who was facing a prison term. In the
last chapter of Master ieves, I tell the tale of
just such a person, a mob leader who had been
jailed four months before the Gardner heist,
and the person who pledged to help get him
out of jail.
BL: You have won Pulitzer Prizes,
worked on investigations with e Globe and
their famous Spotlight team. You have writ-
ten about everything from the clergy abuse
scandal inside the Boston Archdiocese to po-
litical scandals in Washington. Master ieves
continues your investigation into the Gardner
heist. You retired in 2007, yet here you are still
trying to recover those paintings.
SK: I was a founding member of e
Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team. It
was commissioned in the early 1970s to work
on stories that had purpose to Boston and
New England, and its three Pulitzer Prizes,
1972, 1980, and 2003, are evidence to the suc-
cess of focusing on such stories. I regard the
Gardner as a similar story and backed up by
my personal ties to the museum via my father
and my cousins, both of whom were classical
pianists who oen performed at the museum.
Because of those ties, I have come up with an
alternative approach to gaining a recovery—
a full-edged public appeal, which would be
powered by social media. I remember what
attention the “Ice Bucket Challenge” gained
in the summer of 2014 to ALS research. I
think a similar drive should be established
to bring the public attention and energies to-
wards a recovery. Such an appeal would in-
clude outreach to all segments of society both
those law-abiding and criminal. e message
should be that these masterpieces were put
on the museum’s walls for all Bostonians, rich
and poor, and that they remain missing (hid-
den somewhere!) serves no purpose. My sense
is that no one knows where the artwork was
hidden, and the two thieves and their boss
who did know the whereabouts are now dead,
as the FBI conrms. But there are still people
alive who know or have suspicions about who
did it, and what they may have done with
the artwork. But those people are unlikely to
say something because to do say is breaking
some mob code of “omerta,” and to bring for-
ward such information would be considered
“ratting.” e conscience of these people has
to be engaged and they have to be reminded
that many of history’s greatest artists, includ-
ing Van Gogh and Michelangelo, came from
impoverished backgrounds like they and their
families. Perhaps their grandchildren could
be inspired by one of those masterpieces to
become an artist but they need to be back on
the museum gallery’s walls. ey are doing no
good being hidden away. It is time that they be
returned. Regrettably, neither the FBI nor the
museum has seen t to advocate for the social
media campaign. n
Please visit Mr. Kurkjians Web site for
additional background on his fantastic career: To reach Mr.
Kurkjian regarding his work on the Gardner
the, email
Natural Expressions
On Friday, March 1, James Browning,
a postdoctoral research associate in the
Krueger Laboratory, will be performing
at an indie rock show under the stage
name Blackwing at Gussy’s Bar in Astoria,
Queens (20-14 29th Street). Blackwing
will be opening for the Spanish Power Pop
group,Compañía de Sueños Ilimitada.
Doors are at 7 p.m. and admission is $10.
More information about the show can be
found online.
Daniel Gareau of the Krueger Labora-
tory will be playing a rock show with
Doors tribute band, e Lizard Kings, on
ursday, March 7. e show will be held
downtown at e Red Lion (151 Bleecker
Street) from 9:30-10:30 p.m. and admission
is $10. Check out e Lizard Kings online
for more information.
On Saturday, March 9 at 7 p.m., Lance
Langston of the O’Donnell Laboratory and
Alison North of e Rockefeller University
Bio-Imaging Resource Center will be per-
forming “e Tudors: Music of the English
Reformation” at St. Ignatius of Antioch
Episcopal Church (552 West End Avenue)
with the Central City Chorus. is event
features “Mass for Five Voices” by William
Byrd, as well as the music of John Tavener,
John Sheppard, Christopher Tye, omas
Tallis, omas Tomkins, and others. Tick-
ets and information can be found online at
the Central City Chorus website.
Digital Events
is month, Bernie Langs of e Rock-
efeller University Development Oce
announces the release of the animated
music video “I Am Not the One,” created
by GECCOVIZION with original music by
Bernie Langs. e video can be viewed on
Bernie Langs’ Yo u Tu b e page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at mkelley@ to submit your art/music/
performance/sporting/other event for next
month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow
@NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
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