The deal of the art
More than seven years after one of the heists of the century, the case of the
missing Gardner Museum paintings provokes an all-out media war
It was one of the great art heists of the century. In the early-morning hours
of March 18, 1990, two men passing themselves off as Boston Police officers
pushed their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, handcuffed two
security guards to the basement plumbing, and made off with 13 objects valued
at $200 million. The prize catch: The Storm in the Sea of Galilee,
Rembrandt's only seascape.
Now the daring raid has become the subject of one of the great media stories
of the decade.
For several weeks Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg had been
reporting the claims of William Youngworth, a Randolph antiques dealer and
ex-convict who said he could help lead authorities to the paintings. In return,
Youngworth wanted the $5 million reward, immunity from prosecution, and freedom
for his friend Myles Connor, a notorious art thief who's serving a lengthy
The rival Boston Globe first virtually ignored the story, then tried to
play it down -- until last Wednesday, August 27. That's when Mashberg, beneath
the front-page headline WE'VE SEEN IT!, reported the startling news that he'd
been shown the Rembrandt masterwork -- or something that looked like it -- "at
a hiding place in a barren and forsaken Northeast warehouse district." Mailing
tubes in a corner of the warehouse were alleged to contain other stolen
Since then, the two papers have been slugging it out to learn whether the
Rembrandt is the real thing, what Youngworth and Connor know and why they know
it, and -- most important -- how the paintings, which may have been damaged by
their rough storage, can be recovered.
Both newsrooms are seething with tales of intrigue, backstabbing, and
revenge. At the Globe, where Mashberg worked for several years and made
himself supremely unpopular with his editors and some fellow staffers, there
are murmurings that the reporter has gotten too close to Youngworth, and that
he'll pay for his indiscretions. At the Herald, the key actors are
playing it close to the vest, but some worry that the editors might have
overplayed the alleged Rembrandt sighting, since the painting -- as Mashberg
himself has been careful to note -- could turn out to be a fake.
At the center of the controversy is Mashberg himself, a cerebral yet mercurial
37-year-old who's in the sticky position of having become a big part of the
story he's covering. A dogged and talented reporter with a self-righteous
streak that sometimes infuriates his editors, Mashberg declined to comment when
reached at his home on Sunday morning. During a brief conversation, he seemed
confident that when the story plays itself out he'll be fully vindicated.
He'd better hope so -- especially since he may be facing a subpoena from
federal authorities who want to question him about the paintings' whereabouts.
If he refuses to answer those questions, as he almost certainly would, he could
be looking at a stint in jail.
Despite the Gardner's status as a repository of some of the world's great
artworks, the quiet, quirky, quintessentially Boston institution, located on
the Fenway, was not particularly well known before the 1990 theft.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, a friend of Henry James and a subject of portrait
artist John Singer Sargent, built her collection with the $1.5 million fortune
left to her by her father, who died in 1891. With the help of art critic and
connoisseur Bernard Berenson, Gardner acquired works by Botticelli, Vermeer,
and Rembrandt, as well as Titian's Rape of Europa, considered the most
important painting by that artist in America. The building, a fusty Italianate
palazzo with a renowned garden in the central court, has remained essentially
unchanged from the time of Gardner's death in 1924.
The 1990 heist made the museum an unlikely media battleground. Within weeks of
the robbery, the Globe ran a lengthy piece by art critic Christine Temin
that took museum officials to task for allowing both building and paintings to
deteriorate and for paying insufficient attention to security. Two months
later, the New York Times' Fox Butterfield wrote an article criticizing
the Globe story as "an unfair attack."
After that dust-up, the theft pretty much disappeared from the news until
August 4 of this year, when Mashberg, in a front-page exclusive, broke the news
that federal law-enforcement officials were investigating new leads -- and that
Myles Connor, a legendary art thief long rumored to have been involved, might
be the key to recovering the paintings.
On August 10 Mashberg reported on a raid of Connor associate William
Youngworth's antique shop, and on Youngworth's claims that he's tried to put
his criminal past behind him. The final card was placed on the table on August
13, beneath the front-page banner headline LET'S MAKE A DEAL. Mashberg wrote
that Youngworth -- who had recently helped return the stolen Massachusetts Bay
Colony seal -- was "ready to facilitate" the recovery of the paintings stolen
from the Gardner.
The Globe, meanwhile, was slow off the mark, running just a news brief
and an AP story in the opening weeks of the chase. By last week, the paper was
finally up to speed, assigning veteran reporters Stephen Kurkjian, Ric Kahn,
and Judy Rakowsky, and paying particular attention to reports that federal
officials wanted to question Connor.
The Globe suffered a major setback, though, when Mashberg reported that
he had actually seen the alleged Rembrandt -- especially since, on that very
day, the Globe ran a story by Kahn and Kurkjian reporting that museum
officials had dismissed Youngworth's description of several robbery details as
Given the ugly nature of his 1994 departure from the Globe, Mashberg
must be taking considerable satisfaction in the most recent turn of events.
Mashberg, a Brown graduate who was raised in Manhattan, actually began his
career at the Herald in 1982, and from there began a rather meteoric
ascent: to the Globe in 1986 and to the New York Times a year
later. He left the Times in 1991 to accept a fellowship in Los Angeles,
and ended up covering the Rodney King riots for the Globe. He returned
to the Globe as its New York bureau chief and came back to Boston about
a year later.
While at the Globe, Mashberg built a reputation as a top-notch reporter
and as a loose cannon who often feuded with his supervisors. One Globe
source recalls Mashberg writing "multi-take hate mail to his own editors." The
end came in the spring of 1994, after a Globe article wrongly accused
Herald reporter Beverly Ford of falsely attributing quotes to the widow
of an elderly minister who died in a botched police raid. Mashberg, full of
righteous indignation, wrote an opinion piece accusing his editors of "serious
lapses in editing judgment." After the Globe refused to run it, he gave
it to the Herald, and resigned several weeks later. He freelanced for a
few months, writing several pieces for the Phoenix, and joined the
Herald's staff later in the year.
Mashberg has thrived at the less-bureaucratic Herald. But even though
he quickly established himself as a star performer, it's an open secret that
his passionate involvement in the stories he covers is sometimes seen as a
liability. In 1995, for example, Mashberg and fellow staffer Ed Hayward
produced perhaps the definitive series on the controversial Fells Acres child
abuse case. Later, though, Mashberg raised eyebrows within the newsroom by
writing several emotional op-ed pieces in support of defendants Violet, Gerald,
and Cheryl Amirault, while continuing to write news stories on the Amiraults'
The Gardner story has reportedly produced similar concerns. Some Globe
sources say Mashberg's penchant for advocacy journalism is precisely why he may
get burned by the Gardner story. The Herald's top editors, though, are
said to have put considerable effort into assuring themselves that Mashberg's
relationship with Youngworth is sufficiently arm's-length. Herald editor
Andy Costello pronounces himself satisfied on that score, defending Mashberg as
a "consummate professional" and accusing the Globe, which has been
making inquiries concerning Mashberg's conduct, of "trying to create some sort
of diversion." Mashberg's lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, criticizes attempts to
discredit Mashberg's reporting as "sour grapes," adding: "This is one of the
few times I have found journalists to be acting worse than lawyers."
Besides, passionate involvement does not preclude fair, accurate reporting.
"I have some respect for Mashberg," says a Globe source. "He's done some
crazy things, things that were not in his interest. But he's a bright guy and
an ethical journalist."
Mashberg's next hurdle is likely to be a legal one: federal investigators are
obviously eager to know the location of the warehouse to which Mashberg was
taken, especially now that details he offered to museum officials make it
appear more likely that the Rembrandt he saw under the glow of a flashlight was
Mashberg's best defense against a federal subpoena would be to say that he
didn't know the warehouse's location because, for example, he was led there
blindfolded. But neither he nor Costello will say whether that's the case. The
second-best defense, according to Jane Kirtley, executive director of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, would be for the Herald to
assert that it has already published everything it knows. Which is precisely
what Costello says in his carefully rehearsed statements.
This is obviously a dicey time for the Herald. Costello and company
know they may have the scoop of the year. But they also know that if the
painting Mashberg saw turns out to be a fake, they'll look pretty foolish, no
matter how careful Mashberg has been to say that he can't vouch for its
authenticity. And if Billy Youngworth's role is shown to be more sinister than
than of a "facilitator," then the Herald will stand accused of providing
aid and comfort to someone who clearly deserved neither. Youngworth was
scheduled to be interviewed on ABC's Nightline Wednesday night; perhaps
the answers to some of these questions will now start to emerge.
There's talk in some circles that Mashberg and his editors have battled over
how the story has been handled. Asked about that, Mashberg responded, "I'm very
comfortable with the way they're handling this story right now." But asked
whether he and his editors have been on the same page from the beginning,
Mashberg paused before answering carefully: "This has been uncharted territory
for all of us."
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here