The Boston Phoenix
September 4 - 11, 1997

[Don't Quote Me]

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

by Dan Kennedy

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 prison sentence.

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 paintings.

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 flat-out wrong.

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' legal appeals.

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 authentic.

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."


Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/


Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com


Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here


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