31 years later, the pieces were never recovered nor was anyone ever tried for the case. The authorities today have a theory, but it has never been officially proven – and for years and years the mystery has become more and more popular.
A new documentary series reports this case in detail. “This is an Assault: The Biggest Art Theft in the World” premieres this Wednesday, April 7, on Netflix. It has four episodes, each about 50 minutes long. It was performed by Colin Barnicle, a native of the Boston area, and the phrase “This is a robbery” is said to have been said by one of the thieves to the museum security guard who was on duty, Richard Abath.
The assailants took three paintings by Rembrandt with them – one of them is the only known seascape of the Dutch painter; a painting by Vermeer (which has a scarce collection, which does not reach 40 paintings); several sketches by Degas; and works by Manet and Flinck. Despite having gone through many other pieces of greater value, they still took a Chinese vase and a bronze eagle with a Napoleonic flag.
Richard Abath, the security guard, was found by police tied and gagged with duct tape, in the tunnels below the Boston museum. At the time, suspicions soon began to emerge that it had been an orchestrated crime with the help of someone who worked there, and attention quickly turned to the 23-year-old security guard who admitted to going to work with stones several times. But nothing has ever been proven.
It is certain that the security systems of the Isabella Stewart Garden, for a museum full of works of great value, were practically rudimentary. The direction of the museum founded in 1899 did not see safety as a priority and this made space an easy target.
Isabella Stewart Garden’s director, Anne Hawley, had only been in office for six months when the robbery took place. The museum offered a five million dollar reward (which later rose to ten million), but the pieces were never recovered. Hawley stayed in place until 2016 and is one of the main interviewees in this Netflix documentary series.
The production, which took more than five years to be made, also has interviews with local journalists and researchers, in addition to the team having analyzed thousands of documents. It also focuses on the multiple theories that emerged after the theft – which were expanded and disseminated a few years later, in the Internet age.
“We wanted to start with a blank page, without assuming anything, and go from there to see where the evidence was taking us”, said Barnicle to the British newspaper “The Guardian”.
There were two witnesses, two high school teenagers who were leaving a party, who saw two men dressed as policemen in a car. It would have been the assailants. The theories ranged from a conspiracy promoted by the IRA to a crime committed by local mobsters, which is what the FBI investigation advocates, although it has not been proven. Anyway, as the series points out, it seems the most plausible hypothesis.
Reportedly, the theft was committed by two associates of the mobster Carmello Merlino. According to this theory, the thieves were George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, 51 and 49 years old, who regularly attended a car workshop linked to the Mafia. Both died in 1991, a year after the assault, one from a cocaine overdose and the other in a shootout.
Merlino was arrested by the FBI in 1999, and convicted of another felony, attempted robbery. He died in prison in 2005. The FBI believes that the works were being kept for some time by another associate, Robert Guarente, a man who had been convicted of bank robberies and who died in 2004. The only member of the group still alive who could have information about the robbery is David Turner, who was arrested with Merlino in 1999 and released from prison in 2019 at the age of 52. According to the director, he refused to be interviewed for the series.
Although the FBI has no evidence or great theories as to the whereabouts of the works, the American police authority believes that they went through a transportation circuit linked to the mafia, on networks that passed through Philadelphia and Connecticut. The last alleged sighting of one of the paintings was in 2003.
The series’ director, Colin Barnicle, believes that the robbery was commissioned – and that the thieves and the mafia network were just committing the crime to deliver the works to other recipients. Barnicle also says he hopes that the series will bring more attention to this case.
The director believes that some of the smaller pieces, such as the Chinese vase or the bronze eagle – or even the poorly elaborated sketches of great painters – may now be in the possession of someone who may not even know the proper value or origin. Especially because at the time of the theft it was the big pictures that were mainly advertised by the authorities, since they were the top priority. “My hope is that the series will end one of the works back in the frame,” Barnicle told “The Guardian”.
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