Two Polaroid photos in a plain envelope with no return address arrived by mail at the ABCNEWS office in New York. But despite their source's anonymity, if authentic, they could provide clues into a heist the FBI calls the largest art theft in American history.
They were photos of what appeared to be a missing Rembrandt masterpiece, stolen on March 18, 1990, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a four-story museum packed with priceless masterpieces from the collection of socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner.
The alleged Rembrandt was placed atop of a Boston Globe front page to show the date and next to a tape measure to show it to be the size of the rare self-portrait, which isn't much bigger than a postage stamp — but is priceless.
The photo could be an elaborate hoax. But, if authentic, it could prove that the Rembrandt still exists and could be an important clue in a case that for 14 years, the FBI has been unable to break.
After a seven-year investigation into this case, ABCNEWS has learned of a secret 1997 meeting between a one-time member of an art theft ring and museum officials, and that a new deal with the FBI may be in the works.
The 1990 break-in led to an international search for the 12 masterpieces, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and others, which are likely worth as much as a half-billion dollars, according to the museum and the FBI.
View images of the missing masterpieces
"To have art of that quality … taken and never to be seen, never to be appreciated by anybody again, is a devastating impact on the city and frankly, on the art world," said Donald Stern, the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.
Despite a $5 million reward, the art is still missing and law enforcement is no closer to making an arrest. When asked if he thought the investigation has been, so far, a failure, Stern responded, "I guess you have to say that."
"I spend a good deal of my time looking for these paintings," said Geoff Kelly, the FBI agent in charge of the case, while looking at the Polaroid photos ABCNEWS showed him. "It would give me hope if they are what they are."
To many, the best hopes for the artworks' return has long been William P. Youngworth III, a one-time member of a notorious Boston art theft ring. Youngworth says he knows who took the masterpieces and how to get them back.
"I believe I have a very accurate picture of everything that's transpired," Youngworth told ABCNEWS.
Youngworth told ABCNEWS there is still an opportunity for the art to be returned, but only if he isn't forced to tell the FBI who did it.
"Make the choice," he said. "Do you want to put somebody in a cell, or do you want the art back?"
Within days of the theft, Youngworth became — and remains — a focus of the FBI investigation, even though he has about the best alibi possible for his whereabouts that night: He was in federal prison in Memphis, Tenn., for failing to appear in court and for committing an offense while on release. He couldn't have stolen the paintings.
Now free, for the last seven years, Youngworth has been in a high-stakes battle of wits with the FBI and federal prosecutors, trying to prove that he can get the art back without giving the FBI enough proof to put him in prison for possession of stolen property.
When asked if he has seen the paintings since they were stolen, he replied, "Of course not," with a coy expression.
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