Ten years ago, FBI special agent Geoff Kelly got a hefty assignment plopped onto his desk: Track down the thieves responsible for one of the largest art heists in American history, and find $500 million worth of art that's been missing for 23 years.
Flash forward a decade, and Kelly says the FBI's Boston office now knows who is behind the theft, and that it's time for the paintings to return to their rightful home.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kelly spoke about the status of the 23 year old case, what he'd like to say to the thieves, and whether or not the paintings haunt his dreams. (They do.)
Q: When you came onto the case, what did the landscape of the investigation look like at that time, ten years ago? How would you characterize the state of the investigation then, and compared to the state of the investigation now?
It’s certainly ramped up significantly. Back then, there were a number of possible theories we were trying to run down and vet out. And we’ve been able to narrow the focus of our investigation significantly over the last decade.
Q: What was the tip that came in in 2010 that helped to break the case open? Was it related to the identity of the thieves, or the whereabouts of the art?
It focused us and put us on the track we're on now. It was a little bit about both - it was info about who might have been involved, and that gave us a starting point.
Q: The paintings' last known whereabouts were in Philadelphia, you say. What would you say to Philadelphia residents about how and where to look for tips?
Our last confirmed sighting was in the Philadelphia area. Anyone can check out the images of the paintings on our website, and if someone recognizes any of those paintings or pieces or artwork, or recalls someone talking about "valuable artwork" or "stolen artwork" or something like that, just err on the side of caution and give us a call.
Q: What about the connection to Connecticut? What was the timeline between these two places?
We’re keeping it general because we don’t want to be too specific. The artwork was seen in both Connecticut and Philadelphia.
Q: But you're currently targeting Philadelphia.
Q: Was that successful tip what lead you to decide to push again reach out to the public for tips now?
In the ten years that I've been the lead investigator on this case we’ve frequently enlisted the public’s assistance in trying to get information about this. I firmly believe that’s going to be the key to getting the paintings back - help from the public.
Q: What's been the public's response so far to the most recent push for tips?
We don’t want to characterize how many but tips are coming in, but they are coming in, and we’re running them down to vet out the credible ones. We have a very clear message that we want to get out there to the general public. There's the reward offered by the Gardner Museum, the possibility of immunity offered by the U.S Attorney, and the confidentiality being offered by the FBI. If we can get this message out to the correct person, I'm confident we can get these paintings back. There's just no downside.
Q: Immunity from what? Hasn't the statute of limitations passed on the theft, after 23 years?
The statute of limitations on the theft has expired, but you can never get a clear title to stolen property. But given the fact we believe it’s probably that this artwork has changed hands a number of times, the individual in possession of it today may not have anything to do with the original theft, and may not know that it's stolen. I think the reward and immunity is a reasonable offer in return for just giving back this stolen property.
Q: What’s the strategy or thinking behind letting the public know you’ve got the suspects, but not releasing their names?
We wrestled with this. Do we say we've solved it? Do we say we know who has committed the theft? We waited and discussed both ways.
If we said we believe it the art was in Connecticut and Philadelphia and was offered for sale, the next logical question would be, 'Do you know who did it?' So we were trying to choose between either saying upfront, this is everything we can tell you right now, or holding back information and obviously that would have been the first question. Contextually, we felt it was more effective if we released everything we can while preserving the integrity of the investigation.
Q: After ten years on the case, do these works of art haunt you in your dreams at night?
Haunting is a very appropriate word. It’s amazing. I’m still very motivated and at the Gardner Museum frequently, and every time I am there and see those empty frames it is my motivation. And the irony is, I know them so well but I’ve never ever seen them in person. I look forward to the day when I can see them on the wall.
Q: If you could say something to the thieves, or to the people who have the art now, what would you say?
I’d say, you may think this offer is too good to be true, but it’s not. For the ability to become a millionaire and not go to jail and all you have to do is give back what doesn’t belong to you. Or if you don’t have the paintings but know where they are, let's work together to get these paintings back on the wall of the museum. This is an opportunity for someone to realize a big payday with really no downside.
Anyone with information about the artwork can call the FBI at 1-800-CALL FBI (1-800-225-5324) or contact the museum.
Editor's note: This article originally was published by Fenway-Kenmore Patch in Massachusetts.