As we reach the 19th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art objects — among them Vermeer's The Concert, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and Manet's Chez Tortoni — from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there's been a renewed effort to identify the thieves and retrieve the Gardner treasures. Ulrich Boser's new book, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, proposes an identification of the two men who actually entered the museum. He's been in town reading last month and this; I caught up with him at the Parker House.
Let's go back to the night of the Gardner Museum theft, March 18, 1990. The thieves are in their car, outside the museum, and "Jerry Stratberg" — your name for the high-school senior who saw them — says he got a good look. Was the light on in the car?
I don't recall the answer to that very specific question. What I do recall is that the car was sitting fairly close to the street lamp. So there's the entrance to Palace Road, the Palace Road door. Slightly to the left there's a street lamp.
What surprised me about this account is that you have kids who are underage and have been drinking, and yet Jerry and his friend Nancy get close enough to a car with what appear to be police officers for Jerry to report that the man in the driver's seat had "almost Asian" eyes.
I think my understanding from my reporting is that the disconnect was what really surprised them. An unmarked Crown Vic would be one thing you might see police officers in, but in sort of an older-model hatchback — that was what was of note to them.
Wouldn't you think that the thieves would avoid parking near a light?
My understanding is that they were just beyond the street lamp. To me, the Gardner heist is a mystery and there are mysteries within the mystery. Why did they steal the finial? Why did they steal the ku?
There are lot of things about the Gardner theft, little things, perhaps unimportant things, that don't add up.
I try to make this clear in the book: at least in my other reporting, you have facts that are generally well accepted. And in this case it's been a long time and you have a lot of slippery characters. Those two things mix together to create a difficult topic for investigators to approach.
What you wish is that you could call in Columbo.
We're not able to call in Columbo.
How good can we expect Jerry's memory to be 19 years later?
I think that the biggest part of that is not the showing of the photographs to him. It was his description of the police officers I think — actually the thieves — that is really key here, because he gave a very specific description. It wasn't even like, "a well-built guy"; he said the man had Asian eyes. And he got more specific than that: he said one Caucasian and one Asian eye. That to me is very detailed, that's something he gave immediately afterward, so I feel that's really far more in depth than the IDing of the photographs, which is . . . you know, I'm not a police investigator. I'm sure there are methods to doing that appropriately. There was an article in Slate in the past couple of days that said eyewitness-identifying people is a slippery thing. But the specific description that he gave seemed to indicate some confidence.