‘Vanished’: Infamous Gardner Art Heist to Be Explored by Pulitzer-Winning Reporter, FBI Expert, and Fulbright Specialist at The Westport Library 

Wed, Nov 8, 2023
Brendan Toller

Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas, legends in the canon of painting, gone in minutes, as 13 priceless works of art disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the dawning hours of March 18, 1990.  

On the hinge of 2024’s WestportREADS selection, The Art Thief, by Michael Finkel, comes Westport Library’s Vanished program, Thursday, November 16, 7-8 pm. The event is free with registration

Vanished features Stephen Kurkjian, journalist and author of the definitive book on the heist, Master Thieves, and Robert Wittman, retired FBI agent and author (with John Shiffman) of The New York Times best-selling memoir, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. Architect, academic, and Fulbright Specialist Allen Swerdlowe will present and moderate the discussion, delving into the Gardner Museum, the stolen pieces of art, the suspects, and the theories in the world’s biggest theft of art objects from a single institution. 

“There are mysteries inside of mysteries inside the story," Swerdlowe told Westport Library Director of Strategic Community Partnerships Jennifer Bangser on the WPKN Open Book radio hour.  

“One of which is that there was a painting called Chez Tortoni that was stolen from a room that nobody entered. Some of the authorities believe that there were two robberies that night. The story is complicated by the fact that the thieves were in the museum for 81 minutes. Robberies like this typically take a few minutes. ... It suggests the thieves knew they would not be apprehended.”  

The mystery twists through rock ‘n’ rollers moonlighting as security (or vice versa), fake police arrests, and a potential Connecticut connection. These puzzling Garnder heist details and dead ends have consumed all included for 33 years. 

Kurkjian is a 40-year veteran of The Boston Globe, serving as the paper’s former Washington bureau chief and a founding member of its investigative Spotlight Team. He has won more than 25 national and regional awards, including the Pulitzer Prize on three occasions. Kurkjian covered much of the investigation into the heist while in The Globe newsroom and has remained on the story since. He co-produced the award-winning podcast Last Seen with WBUR-FM radio in Boston, and has appeared in numerous documentaries on the case, including This is a Robbery, a four-part Netflix series, and others on the History Channel and CNN.

Wittman joined the FBI as a special agent in 1988, receiving detailed training in art, antiques, jewelry, and gem identification, taking on the role of the FBI’s investigative expert in art and cultural property crime investigations. Written with 2009 Pulitzer Prize Finalist Shiffman, Priceless follows Wittman through his career with the FBI, providing a first-perspective account of some of the most well-known art heists in modern history (including Gardner) and the undercover FBI stings that sought to foil them. 

“It’s fascinating because of the fact that nothing was ever seen again,” Swerdlowe said of the crime. “It’s fascinating because everybody thinks they know the answer, and in all in cases it’s not the answer they thought it was.” 

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