March 11, 2004 -- 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.
Anatomy of a St. Patrick’s Day Heist
The art theft was timed to what is perhaps the busiest day of the year for the Boston police, St. Patrick's Day. But a few miles away from the revelry in downtown Boston, two men dressed as Boston police with what were later described as false moustaches walked up to the side entrance of the Gardner Museum.
At approximately 1:24 a.m. the men knocked on the door, claiming to be investigating a disturbance in the area. The museum guards let them in.
The thieves handcuffed the museum guards and left them in the basement. No weapons were used. According to the FBI, once the museum guards were removed away from a "panic button" near their base, the thieves were free to roam the museum.
There were no alarm wires on the paintings, which were uninsured.
Youngworth said the museum had long been a "soft target" for art thieves. On one occasion Youngworth boasted that he himself had been let into the Gardner Museum after-hours — but before the theft in 1990.
Among the 12 paintings they stole were Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the Dutch master's only known seascape, Lady and Gentleman in Black, and a rare self-portrait. The self-portrait was believed to be the drawing on the Polaroid sent to ABCNEWS.
The thieves also took one of only 32 known paintings by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, The Concert; Edouard Manet's portrait of a French gentleman, Chez Tortoni; and five charcoal drawings by Edgar Degas.
The thieves left the museum through the side door. Still unexplained is why some more valuable pieces were left behind.
‘Grab and Return’
Youngworth's ties to the art world appear to go back to the 1970s. He seems to have insider knowledge to an incident in 1975 when two young men stole a Rembrandt painting from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
"You know they have every security measure in place but they just can't stop a kid in sneakers," said Youngworth.
Newspaper accounts say the painting was returned a few months later as part of a ransom deal that got the boss of a Boston art theft ring quietly released from jail, a practice that Youngworth calls "a grab and return."
Youngworth is talking about a deal the thieves want to make with law enforcement or investigators. "It's always a story, like they found it in a storage bin, or through some super-sleuth techniques," he told ABCNEWS. "They look good. We get our guy back. They get the stuff back, no harm, no foul, on we go."
Youngworth said it was a "grab and return" behind the theft at the Gardner Museum. "This may sound perverse but in [the thieves'] minds they were trying to rescue their friend," he said. "And I mean there is a certain amount of nobility in that from the way I see it."
But he said the thieves could not find a way to make a deal for their friend in prison because the art theft had attracted too much attention.
‘Up for Grabs’
Youngworth said that some time later, the art found its way to Boston underworld boss Joe Murray, convicted in 1987 for drug smuggling and gun running for the Irish Republican Army.
People involved in the case say Murray bought the hot art off the original thieves for a mere $300,000.
But after Murray was shot dead by his wife in an apparent domestic dispute in 1992 at their home in Maine — where some involved in the case believe the art had been stashed — the art was then passed into the care of Youngworth to keep it out of the hands of rival underworld families.
"Everybody was looking for it," he said. "And I don't mean the police."
"Somebody was just extremely clever and quiet and was sitting on it for a number of years until things cooled off," said Youngworth.
When asked if that "somebody" was himself, he answered, "No, of course not. It wasn't me."
Five years later, in 1997, Youngworth claimed he could broker the return of the missing art. But years went by and, he said, returning the stolen art for the $5 million reward, without getting himself or his friends arrested, had proven to be almost impossible.
Federal prosecutors did not want the thieves to get away with a deal.
"You can't turn your back on a very serious criminal offense, and if you do, you basically give ammunition to other people to steal priceless works of art," said Stern, who is now in private practice at the Boston law firm, Bingham McCutchen.
Youngworth was able to describe to ABCNEWS what he says is on the back of the Rembrandt seascape, something only the museum or the thieves would know about.
"It's a repair," said Youngworth. "An L-shaped tear. And it's been hand-sewn." The museum refused to comment on his description.
In the past, federal prosecutors concluded that Youngworth's story was likely a scam to get money out of the museum.
"As we spun it out and as we gave him an opportunity to put up or shut up," said Stern, "he put up very little and never shut up."
Youngworth said, "It was no scam. It was the real thing."
Gardner’s Attempted Deal
Administrators at the Gardner Museum became convinced Youngworth was, in fact, the real thing. The museum tried to cut its own deal with Youngworth, behind the backs of the FBI, ABCNEWS has learned.
Seven years ago, the museum's executive director, Ann Hawley, and a wealthy board member, Arnold Hiatt, sat down with Youngworth at the ritzy Hotel Plaza Athenee in New York City.
At the session, Hiatt and Hawley gave Youngworth $10,000 in good-faith money, with the promise of a reward of $5 million if he could return the art. He was told that the museum was fed up with the FBI and federal prosecutors.
On an audiotape obtained by ABCNEWS, Hiatt told Youngworth that the museum can use its political influence to get the FBI and federal prosecutors off his back.
Hiatt is heard saying on the tape that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, is a friend of the museum's and implied he was one person who could intervene.
"He wants to see this happen," said Hiatt on the tape. "And it isn't just one man. There are a number of people in high public places that want to see this happen."
Hiatt declined to comment on the meeting. A spokesperson for Kennedy said he had no knowledge of the meeting, and that Kennedy did not intervene with federal investigators on the Youngworth matter, although he has worked with the museum and the FBI to try to resolve the case.
When the FBI and federal prosecutors learned of the museum's meeting with Youngworth, they called the two museum officials in front of a federal grand jury convened to investigate Youngworth. The back-channel dealings were over.
But the hardball tactics from law enforcement agencies escalated against Youngworth. In November 1997, he was convicted on a charge of possession of a stolen motor vehicle and sent to state prison in Massachusetts, where he remained for three years. Youngworth says the charge was brought only to get him to talk.
He ignored what he said were promises of freedom if he would both turn over the art and reveal who stole it.
"I come from a world that that's not, you know, that's not acceptable," he said.
In the past seven years, his wife, Judy, died of a drug overdose and his son, Billy, was placed in foster care. Youngworth said that law enforcement authorities from the Norfolk County, Mass., district attorney's office even brought Billy, who was 6 at the time, in for questioning to see what he knew about the stolen paintings.
While denying direct access to the artwork, Youngworth acknowledged that at this point, he considered burning the art. He said the case was "like riding around with a dead body in your trunk."
But as the 14th anniversary of the Gardner theft approaches next week, the FBI and federal prosecutors have signaled a dramatic change in tactics toward Youngworth, a decision made by the new U.S. attorney in Boston, Michael Sullivan.
"What is more important?" said Sullivan. "A successful prosecution or a successful return of the artwork? And if they're mutually exclusive, I think a successful return of the artwork is a higher priority."
Asked if he would prosecute the person who handed over the paintings, Sullivan said, "I suspect that we're going to be able to work something out."
Youngworth said those are the kinds of words he has been waiting to hear for seven years.
"Hey, all we had to be was honorable here," he said. "That's all we had to do."
Youngworth said that if he had a complete immunity agreement seven years ago, the art would be back where it should be, in the Gardner Museum.
As it stands now at the Gardner Museum, there are only empty frames where the stolen Rembrandts and other masterpieces were once was on display. Under the terms of the will of Isabella Stewart Gardner, nothing can be moved, nothing put in their place.
The museum says the $5 million reward remains available.
"Let's announce an amnesty," said Youngworth, challenging the U.S. attorney's office to offer him a full immunity deal for the return of the art. "Let's say, let's work for the bigger good here. Let's get that stuff back on the wall. I mean let's set history right here."