Some of the most precious paintings in the world, a billion-dollar haul including work by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas and Manet, were stolen from a gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, in an audacious heist 30 years ago. But now, just as a British detective closes in on what he believes are the best clues so far to the masterpieces’ hiding place, his key contact, an Irish gangster, has disappeared.
Martin “the Viper” Foley, a well-known convicted criminal who has operated on the fringes of gangland political violence in Ireland for half a century, has suddenly dropped out of negotiations, according to Charles Hill, a leading art sleuth. And Foley’s promise to reunite the public with these great works, including Vermeer’s The Concert, the most valuable missing artwork in the world, has vanished with him.
Over a string of secret meetings and telephone calls in the summer of 2019, Foley steered Hill towards a potential deal with the surviving members of a gang he claims took the art and hid it three decades ago. But this summer, after early publicity in Ireland about the negotiations, Foley, who is also wanted for unpaid taxes, dropped out of sight.
It was reported in February that the 66-year-old was in hiding after a warning from the Gardai, the Irish police, of a serious threat to his life from fellow gang members. “If anyone can find these paintings, Charley Hill can,” said John Wilson, the BBC journalist behind a new documentary film, The Billion Dollar Art Hunt, about the investigation. “He is still convinced they are in Ireland and that a deal to return them is possible.”
In the early hours of 18 March 1990, as the noise of St Patrick’s Day celebrations dwindled outside, two men dressed as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and, after handcuffing the guards, took almost an hour and a half to select the artworks they wanted. The heist remains notorious in the art world, and is the single biggest theft of property in America.
The museum is offering a $10m reward for information leading to the paintings’ recovery. Hill, a former head of the Met’s art and antiques squad who recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream in 1994, followed a credible lead to west Dublin last autumn. Wilson and a BBC camera crew chronicled the investigation for the documentary, which is to be shown on BBC4 next week.
Since leaving the police after 20 years, Hill has operated independently and so is able to offer ransom money on behalf of the owners of missing artworks. This means working at the dangerous interface between art thieves and dealers, and in the case of the Boston heist, also on the edges of the world of former Republican activists in Ireland. Hill led a team that recovered another Vermeer and a Goya stolen in 1986 from Russborough House in County Wicklow. This theft had been masterminded by an old associate of Foley’s, the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill.
Foley, who is also wanted in Ireland for unpaid taxes amounting to €738,449 (£669,500), failed to meet Hill and Wilson in person in Ireland, but another criminal source, who appears anonymously in the film, confirmed his theory that the works were shipped to Ireland after the Boston theft.
“The Boston police, the FBI and the security experts at the museum have always believed the paintings stayed in the city, but Charley disagrees, because there are too many things pointing to Ireland now,” said Wilson this weekend.
If anyone has recently walked into a room where The Concert, or Rembrandt’s only seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, were hanging, to say nothing of the Manet, five sketches by Degas and a Govert Flinck landscape, they are likely to have become suspicious. The truth is, however, that they are probably all hidden behind a wall or in a cellar, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, waiting to serve as collateral in gangland trade or to be swapped for cash.
The still-empty frames in the museum where they were once proudly displayed are a reminder of what has been lost. Wilson and Hill travel to Boston for the documentary to speak to the curators and detectives who have followed every twist in the story. The trail led first to the Italian-American community in the city and then it indicated the involvement of James “Whitey” Bulger, one of America’s most wanted crime bosses until his arrest in 2011 in Santa Monica. FBI agents uncovered money and illegal firearms in his home, but no art.
For Hill, and for the museum’s security adviser, Anthony Amore, the unlikely theft of some lower-value sketches of horses by the French artist Edgar Degas, points at the very least to a group of criminals with a strong interest in the race track.
The Billion Dollar Art Hunt, BBC Four, Monday 19 October, 9pm