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FBI Says It Has Identified Thieves In Gardner Art Heist

In this March 11, 2010 photo, the empty frame, center, from which thieves cut Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

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BOSTON — The FBI says it knows who stole priceless masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. But it won’t name names, and investigators are still looking for the works of art.

The announcement came Monday — 23 years to the day after the heist.

The History Of The Heist — And The Chase

It was 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, when two thieves, dressed as Boston police officers, pulled off the greatest art heist of all time, stealing 13 masterpieces from the museum, including a Vermeer, a Manet and three Rembrandts.

Richard DesLauriers, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Boston, said Monday that agents traveled the world, chasing thousands of leads, and got a big break about three years ago.

The FBI's Richard DesLauriers speaks to the press Monday while, from left, museum security chief Anthony Amore, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Special Agent Geoff Kelly look on. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The FBI’s Richard DesLauriers announces the developments Monday while, from left, museum security chief Anthony Amore, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Special Agent Geoff Kelly look on. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“In 2010, this investigation accelerated,” he said. “FBI agents developed crucial pieces of evidence that confirmed the identify of those who entered the museum and others associated with the theft who belonged to a criminal organization. That evidence was immediately recognized as the key to opening other doors due to the decades of careful and diligent investigation that preceded it. In fact, as expected, it quickly led to confirming the identity of those involved in the robbery and brought us to the point where we are today.”

But even though FBI officials say they know who did it, they won’t name names, citing the ongoing investigation. It’s ongoing because the bureau still hasn’t found the stolen works of art.

“We’ve determined that in the years since the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia area,” DesLauriers said. “For example, recently we determined that approximately a decade ago, some of the art was brought to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale. However, we do not know where the art is currently located.”

A Reward And A Media Campaign

Federal authorities believe thieves may have divided the stolen art and individual pieces could now be in the possession of people who may not even be aware they have priceless masterpieces.

“It’s likely over the years that someone — a friend, neighbor or a relative — has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantle or stored in an attic,” DesLauriers said. “We want that person to call us. We also want current or previous residents of Philadelphia and Connecticut and elsewhere to know they’re eligible for up to a $5 million reward being offered by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Museum.”

The reward, which the FBI calls the largest in history, will only be paid if the stolen art is recovered in good condition.

Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s chief of security, is optimistic.

“History has shown that paintings that are stolen, such as these, are almost always recovered in good condition,” Amore said. “It’s likely, and my belief is they are in good condition. There wasn’t a lot of evidence on the scene to point to destruction of these paintings, other than the two large Rembrandts were cut from their frames.”

The statute of limitations on the Gardner heist ran out 17 years ago, but those who possess the pieces or know where the artworks are can still be charged, though federal prosecutors say they’ll offer immunity under certain conditions.

If you have a tip, the FBI wants to know about it. The bureau has set up a new website (www.FBI.gov/gardner) about the Gardner museum theft and purchased space on digital billboards in the Philadelphia area.

This post was updated at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday with Morning Edition content.

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Also in 2010, we examined three of the stolen works: