Is there an obsession with Boston's dark side? Ulrich Boser, the author of the tantalizing whodunit “The Gardner Heist,” sounds off to Loaded Gun about Hollywood’s fixation with Boston-based thugs on film. Boser points out the recurring “art heist” archetype in the crop of flicks hitting theaters, including “The Maiden Heist” starring Morgan Freeman and the soon-to-be-shot flick from “The Departed” scribe William Monahan chronicling the life of career criminal Myles Connor.
“I think Hollywood wants good thieves, criminals who aren't really criminals. It makes for better films, or at least ones with a more sympathetic leading character,” Boser tells Loaded Gun. “Art adds another layer of luster, of exoticism, of skill and daring, and at least on film, art thieves are often portrayed as sly and skillful, Pierce Brosnans or Cary Grants, a thief who wears black turtlenecks and dances through lasers like a Russian gymnast.”
Boser says he finds that the archetypal art-heist character is far less glamorous in real life.
“The people who steal masterpieces are largely thugs--aging coke heads, out-of-work purse snatchers, ex-cons looking to pay the rent. They want the cash. They steal art because it’s easy. And while people swipe masterpieces for all sorts of reasons--politics, passion, greed--the idea of a gentleman thief is a myth,” he adds.
Slotted to read from “The Gardner Heist” 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 17 at Barnes & Noble at the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston followed by a discussion 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19 at the Boston Public Library, Boser spills to Loaded Gun about Hollywood’s fixation on Boston-based thugs, whether or not James “Whitey” Bulger was involved in the real-life heist of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990 and actually points to the man he believes robbed the famed museum.
LOADED GUN: ‘The Departed’ writer William Monahan plans to direct a Boston-set flick on the forthcoming memoirs of career criminal Myles Connor. While researching ‘The Gardner Heist,’ did you uncover any ties to Connor?
ULRICH BOSER: When you talk about the Gardner heist, Connor's name almost always comes up. I mean he was a brilliant art thief. He stole dozens of works of art. He robbed almost every major museum on the East Coast. But he was in an Illinois jail at the time of the Gardner crime, and so he could not have been one of the thieves. Connor has long maintained that two of his associates—David Houghton and Bobby Donati—committed the robbery. But Connor’s account has a number of problems. Houghton was a 350-pound, unemployed auto mechanic, who appears to have been far too bumbling to have robbed the museum. And Donati was born in 1940 and would have been too old to have been one of thieves, who witnesses say were in their 20s and 30s.
LG: There's a mention of a ‘rock ‘n’ roll art thief’ in the jacket copy? Connor, right?
UB: Yes. I devote almost a whole chapter to Connor.
LG: Any ties to James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and the Winter Hill gang?
UB: At the time of the heist, Bulger was the most powerful gangster in Boston, and there are a number of highly respected British art detectives who believe that he may have taken control of the lost art after the theft. Some also believe that Bulger may have given the paintings to gangsters in Ireland and that the paintings have been stashed somewhere along the western coast of the island. I spent years looking into the lead and even made a trip to Ireland to look for Bulger and investigate the Irish connection. But I never found any hard evidence that Bulger was involved, not a single whiff.
LG: What are your thoughts on Myles Connor and his ‘The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Thief, Rock-and-Roller and Prodigal Son’ memoir?
UB: I have not seen a final copy of Connor's book. I think that Siller is a great writer, and I'm eager to see what they produced.
LG:. Anything else?
UB: I think we now know who robbed the Gardner. As part of my research into this case, I uncovered new evidence that Boston gangster David Turner was one of the thieves who looted the museum. I discovered dozens of FBI files that show how Turner’s crime boss, Carmello Merlino, twice tried to return the paintings in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. I unearthed the last witness to see the thieves before they entered the museum, and he picked Turner out of a photo lineup. And when I confronted Turner with the evidence, he began to brag, telling me that I should put his face on the cover of my book. Turner is currently serving a 38-year jail term; he has never been charged with the museum theft.
Click here to learn more about Boser's "The Gardner Heist."