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Museum Asks: Does It Take A Thief to Catch a Degas?

Convicted thief's offer to recover stolen Boston artworks poses ethical questions.

Seven years ago, two men with fake black mustaches and police uniforms walked into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and pulled off the biggest art heist of the century. Now, two men with criminal pasts are offering to help the museum get its precious artwork back. All they ask in return is immunity from prosecution and a $5 million reward.

Last week's offer by William Youngsworth III, an art dealer in Randolph, Mass., and Myles Connor Jr., a convicted art thief serving time in a Pennsylvania prison, may sound a lot like extortion. But it is hardly unusual in the shadowy world of art theft, where the normal rules of the criminal justice system often don't apply. In fact, the oddest aspect of the case is that the pair made their offer through the Boston Herald, a scrappy tabloid, not quietly through a lawyer.

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"Generally, the people who come forward with information on stolen art are not the pillars of society," chuckles Harold Smith, a fine-arts adjuster in New York. "They're paranoid, and they're convinced that ... you're going to turn them in." Such an unstable mind-set is not great for negotiation, he adds, "but given the importance to humanity of the Gardner collection, you have to go the extra mile to get them back."

The value of this stolen collection - including Rembrandt's only known seascape, a Vermeer, and five works by Degas - is difficult to measure in dollar signs and decimal points, but conservative estimates put the figure at $200 million. Clearly, there is a global market for fine art, stolen or not, and the value of the world's 100,000 reported stolen works of art may be as much as $6 billion.

While Hollywood often portrays art thieves as cat burglars with nimble fingers and exquisite tastes, the real-world crooks are a much less urbane lot.

The men who pinched a Picasso, a Degas, a Chagall, and six other paintings from a storage locker in San Fernando, Calif., for example, were an electrician, a carpenter, and the owner of a pancake house.

"We're not talking Peter O'Toole and David Niven here," says Constance Lowenthal, director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, which helps track stolen art. "In general, they're stolen by people who don't realize what they've got and how difficult it is to sell on the open market."

Behind these thieves is an underworld network of dishonest art dealers called "fences," who shield their transactions from public view. Typically, fences hire thieves to break into the homes of the rich and then for each item. Sometimes they even provide the thieves with shopping lists. Next, as art or antique dealers, fences sell the goods to unsuspecting customers, most of whom don't check for references.

"People are weird," says Weld Henshaw, a Boston attorney who recently helped an "innocent purchaser" return a Paul Klee drawing that was stolen 34 years ago from New York's Phillips Collection. "They go to an auction and buy art for $100,000 and never check the title [of ownership]. You would never buy a house without doing a title search, but people figure, if it's in the Sotheby's catalog, it must be OK."

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For victims like the Gardner Museum, fame is a two-edged sword. Famous works are difficult to sell, but they are also more likely to be stolen and ransomed back to the original owner.

Even so, the record for returning stolen works of art seems to be improving. At the Art Loss Register, routine checks by auctioneers and police officials have helped recover an average of one stolen artwork per day. This success rate may increase, as the ALR database expands and becomes more well-known.

In Boston, meanwhile, FBI investigators have transferred Mr. Connor from his prison in Pennsylvania to Boston for questioning and say they are "willing to talk with anyone who alleges to have information relative to the Gardner incident."

And for a while at least, the doyennes and Brahmins of Boston society - as well as frustrated editors at the rival Globe - are finding they suddenly have reason to read the Herald.

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