INTERVIEW: Stephen Kurkjian

An interview with Stephen Kurkjian, formerly of the Boston Globe, about art heists, investigation and journalism.

This interview was conducted for the upcoming issue of MUSEUM Magazine — “The Tip-Off”.

In the early hours of the morning on March 18, 1990, two men entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in Boston, Massachusetts, and made off with $500 million worth of art represented by 13 pieces, including Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert. None of the stolen works have been recovered. Both men were dressed as police officers.

The case quickly receded into untouchability. The FBI, who once maintained up for forty agents on the case at any given time, pursued multiple leads. A letter was sent to the Boston Globe in 1994 offering the return of the painting in exchange for $2.6 million and a guarantee of clemency. The sender stopped the letters almost as a soon as they began.

In 1997, Tom Mashberg, a writer for the Boston Herald, alleged that petty Boston criminal William P. Youngworth III drove him to a warehouse where he was shown The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. He was given paint chips which were allegedly scratched from the artwork. Later analysis showed that they did not come from any Rembrandt.

Over the past twenty-five years, the Gardner case has shown itself only as a spectre. Leads emerge, then vanish.

The notion of an art heist seems impossibly removed from our experiences in 2016. The deep national tragedy engendered in the theft of art from the public is quaint and alien in an era where criminality manifests through more profitable black markets like the drug trade, or the dissociated violence of white collar crime. It harkens to an older time, one perhaps lost in the current climate of constant surveillance.

The Gardner case, which is among the biggest art thefts in history, occupies a fractured space in the imagination of the Northeastern United States. America does not have the same kind of grounded national connection to their public art as many European countries do. The loose threads are being wound up, and the enormity of the loss is receding from the American memory.The FBI concedes that the thieves themselves are likely dead. It is no longer about the pursuit of justice, but the healing of a cultural wound.

Stephen Kurkjian, a 40-year veteran of the Boston Globe’s investigate journalism unit, is particularly interested in the Gardner heist. For him, the long-empty frames in the museum represent a fracture in the story of Boston and America itself — a national tragedy that demands closure. His book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist offers itself as two things: an exhaustive account of the downward spiral of the FBI investigation, and a piece of advocacy for a nation that has forgotten what it lost.

Kurkjian frames the case as lost in a forest of whispers. The intersecting stories of the Boston underworld appear as conjecture, slander, red herrings and dead ends as he tries to trace the path of a single piece of information. He begins his story with Louis Royce, a small time criminal who — having spent some of his vagrant teenage years covertly sleeping in the Gardner museum — passes on a tip about the museum’s security holes to his gangland connections. He never pulls off the heist, but through a game of Chinese whispers, his tip is dispersed among a number of people who may have.

We come out of Master Thieves still feeling a sense of displacement. The FBI brushes off the conclusions drawn by Kurkjian, and the Boston underworld remains as tight-lipped as ever. In the wake of popular campaigns around culturally unifying moments like the Boston Marathon massacre, Kurkjian sees an opportunity. He believes that in writing the book, someone with a sliver of relevant information will come forward and make themselves known.

In doing so, Kurkjian touches the realm of modern journalism — which often works across the fields of digital media and advocacy as much as it does reporting. He is not necessarily of this new world. His investigation comes from a more grounded time — when journalism was a craft, and it relied as much on connections as much as it did pure wordcraft.

This is the journalism of picking up the phone and flexing your credentials to get what you need. It emerges from the kind of hardscrabble communities exemplified by Boston in the 1960’s, where acquiring information is a matter of who you know and who they know. In Master Thieves, Kurkjian explores a relationship with both the criminal underworld of the Northeastern United States and the law enforcement who police them as not only a journalist but as someone deeply embedded in those communities.

I spoke to Kurkjian about the case, the importance of replacing the paintings, the difficulty of interrogating criminal networks and the changing face of investigative journalism in 2016.

HENNESSY What interests me about this case and your book is how it’s written and how it unfolds. You start with the frame of Louis Royce, who discovered this chink in the armour of the ISGM’s security. Then it degenerates into this web of connections, tip-offs and red herrings. How do you navigate that as a writer?

KURKJIAN The most important thing is to keep [your] eye on the narrative. What did I want to show in this work? I found when I sat down to write this in ’13 that I didn’t have any new information. How could I get into this enormous criminal network — which the FBI called an ‘unholy alliance’ — stretching from Dorchester to Maine to Connecticut?

I knew this lawyer, Marty Leppo, who somehow blessed and cursed every client of his with the idea that if you can find the paintings — it doesn’t matter if you’re involved in a jaywalking or a triple murder — Marty will tell you that if you find the paintings, the FBI will let you out of jail. Marty was the one who facilitated the Myles Connor transfer, which started this whole belief here in Boston in the bad-guy-world that getting a masterpiece to the FBI will get you out of jail.

HENNESSY Is that a widely held belief, do you think?

KURKJIAN It’s absolutely held here. Every gangster thinks it’s the magic card. The trump. I can go back and show that it’s a myth. I have never seen anyone … maybe they got a lighter sentence. I call it the ‘extra pillow theory.’ Maybe their brother-in-law got a better pillow while they served hard time. But no one gets out of jail. That’s not gonna happen.

The only reason those guys would have broken into [ISGM] is to get the paintings — either for value, or for ransom. And the way they treated the paintings — cutting them out from their frames — that tells me they were not stealing [them] for their intrinsic value.

HENNESSY They’re not art lovers.

KURKJIAN No. There’s no Pierce Brosnan in the Gardner case. These paintings were damaged. The one piece of art these thugs wanted was the Napoleonic banner. They didn’t break the frame and tear it out.

So this gives us a motive. But all these years later, they haven’t had a peep on these paintings. That tells me the investigative approach isn’t working. There has to be another approach.

So I came up with another. It came from a conversation I had with a detective in France who was one of the lead detectives on a case involving the theft of a couple of impressionists around ’85 in Paris. The paintings were recovered in ’91. They were held by a gang of Sardinian mobsters.

I called the detective and I asked him if he saw any similarities between his case and mine. He said, “I’m not sure there are real similarities. My guys came in with guns, your guys came in dressed as police officers. Our guys worked the more traditional way. Yours was more a ruse. There was an artifice involved.”

He said, “The big difference between the two cases is your population. You consider your case a cold case. It’s a hell of a story. It’s a mystery though. Ours wasn’t considered a mystery. Ours was considered a tragedy. Every Parisian felt the loss of those paintings as if [they were] stolen from their own walls.”

He told me a pall descended on Paris, which spurred them to get those paintings back. There was never a doubt they had every Parisians’ assistance in getting them back.

“I don’t think your public feels the loss, like our public feels the loss,” he told me. He told me this, and I was thinking about it in the summer of ’14. Now, have you heard of something called the Ice Bucket Challenge? For ALS?

HENNESSY Sure, that was pretty global.

KURKJIAN Right. That started in Boston, for ALS research. And the grandfather of that young man, that baseball player, who was debilitated by that disease — he couldn’t even move — his grandfather worked with me at the Globe. I saw him at an event that summer. I said “Jerry, tell me about this social media campaign.”

And he said, “Steve, it’s un-fuckin’-believable. We have raised millions.” In August, they raised $80 million. Huge. So I thought to myself: if I could get the public’s attention — if I could get the public to feel this loss in a personal way … things would begin to shake.

Let me just tell just one way to reach the public. I’ll tell you why it’s important on this case. One way to reach the public is to get someone — individuals — who communicate in all realms of society. I call it both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Boston is not a racially divided city anymore, thank God. But it’s still a very tribal city. Some are richer, many are poorer. The criminal world still consider themselves part of the ‘have-not’ world. And they don’t do any favours. So when you get the museum’s director, or board of trustees, or art devotees talking about the loss to the city — they’re not listening.

HENNESSY High society.

KURKJIAN They don’t care. What you need to do is make them care. They have the secrets. They may not have the secret of where the stuff is. But they have pieces of the secret. How do we get ’em to pick up the phone when they’re part of the ‘have-not’ world and they won’t do us a favour? This is how I came up with it.

You put on one of two people in front of those empty frames. And those frames are empty — where once hung the masterpieces of the universe — and being there is like being at a funeral. You put in front of those frames one of two men. Cardinal O’Malley, who is our Catholic cardinal, or Mayor Martin Walsh. Walsh is a recovered alcoholic. He has a biography of redemption and recovery, and I think that resonates. Walsh was a union member. He was a labourer and then became head of the labourer’s union. You have a sense of tough beginnings, from which he’s been able to make something. That resonates with the ‘have-nots.’

The Cardinal … he is as humble and earnest and well intentioned as you could hope. Everyone is a member of his flock. Have him in front of those empty frames. Have one of those men, and have it online for people to see. Stand in front of those frames and say, “There is no reason for this art to be lost now.”

A world-class city does not allow the only Rembrandt seascape and the only Vermeer in Northeastern America to disappear. We have to get them back. Even though they weren’t painted by Americans, they were put on these walls for our appreciation. Mrs Gardner did not charge for her museum, because she wanted Bostonians in there to be inspired. Now these two glorious masterpieces, among others, are gone. It’s ridiculous that they’re gone. I think that resonates.

It’s a great loss to the city. It’s a great loss to me. I’m a Boston boy. My school was behind the museum. My father was an artist, my two cousins played piano at the museum often. I’m the right person to be bringing attention to this. It resonates with me.

HENNESSY And now you can harness the new ways information is passed around and disseminated through social media to create that kind of solidarity.

KURKJIAN Yes. I cannot tell you how much it affects those I speak to. In fact, I was on air on a local TV station to talk about it, and I got a call from a guy who said “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’m gonna tell you this: I was with a guy who said he was gonna do the Gardner museum.” I checked it out to the nth degree; the guy was a legitimate guy. Somebody has the secrets. Somebody knows a brother-in-law, someone knows someone who was involved.

The $5 million reward is so good, it tells me that the FBI is correct: the two people who did it are dead. One thing I found about criminal gangs, is that if we’re in a gang with eight to 10 people doing all sorts of nefarious stuff … if you and I pull off a score, we don’t tell the other six in the gang. We can’t trust them with that knowledge. The secrets stay very close with the direct participants.

But [those other gang members] do know something. They know the secret hiding places. These pieces of information could be very valuable.

HENNESSY A big art heist that remains unsolved is a relic of an era that’s not long for this world, if it’s not gone already. I don’t think there’s many secrets left.

KURKJIAN I hear ya.

HENNESSY You’re trying to penetrate a much older world with new technology like social media.

KURKJIAN The gangs aren’t as prolific now. They’re mostly involved in drugs. That’s the crime on the streets — not extortion and certainly not art theft. That’s not part of organised crime. As a result, they don’t have the resources to hide that sort of stuff — stolen art and so on. You may be right on that.

HENNESSY The thought of keeping something like that under wraps, in a society that’s so under surveillance — not just by the State, but by one another — would be impossible.

KURKJIAN For sure. And you know, that’d be the hardest place to break in these days. A museum.

HENNESSY What’s fascinating for me is understanding how information is gathered and how these networks of information work. What you’re doing is a very old-school investigation using new tools. Social media is obviously a very new and very powerful tool.

KURKJIAN Yeah. One of the people I’m interested in right now — and this is just showing off, it has nothing to do with my skills as a reporter …

HENNESSY I’m happy to hear it.

KURKJIAN I was on the phone to another reporter today — investigating someone or something — and I said, “We gotta find out if the guy had a car phone.” And he said “Car phone? You mean a mobile?” And I said “No, no, no — a car phone, a phone in the car, like in the old days.” He said he wouldn’t even know where to begin with looking for something like that.

And damn! It’s called reporting! You don’t know where to look? No one knows where to look! You call up someone who sells phones, and you ask who the carrier was for car phones — Verizon, or whoever. And you call up the Verizon PR guy and you ask how you’d find out whether so-and-so had a car phone. And maybe he’d tell ya, and maybe he wouldn’t. But you’d be in the ballpark.

It’s what you do as a reporter. You pick up the phone and you use your skills and your base knowledge about how the world works. You call your cousin and hope he knows someone who works in the field you’re looking at. That’s how it works.

HENNESSY It’s a different world. I don’t think reporters today work the same way. The notion of, you know, personal networks of tip-offs … it’s not really the same. That’s the domain of PR people now.

KURKJIAN I like to say the most powerful sentence in the English language starts with these words: “I’m Steve Kurkjian from the Boston Globe, and I want … ” Dot, dot, dot. You put your own name in there. It’s like an open sesame. They’ll open up, or they won’t.

But then you call their lawyers! And you say, “I’m puttin’ his name in the paper. And it’s not gonna look good for him. So you need to help me here. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll put in his motion for the defence. But I won’t unless you help me out.” And he’ll know you’ve done your homework, and you’ve got something to offer. That’s key.

Someone one said to me “Steve, dealing with you is like dealing with the State Department. Until you hear no, it’s not over.” And she’s right. We got the First Amendment here. The First Amendment puts us above having a gun in our hand. That’s the Second Amendment. We’re the First. I am gonna use that power to get the information I want.