A bankrobber downsizes

Annals of Crime
By JOHN LARRABEE  |  April 13, 2011

There's nothing like an art heist to make a journalist spout hyperbole. What else could explain the wild things they've said about Myles J. Connor, the career criminal who by his own account has tiptoed by night through literally dozens of museums?

He was "a Mayflower-descended master criminal" in Vanity Fair, and "the world's greatest crooked connoisseur" in Town & Country. "A true professional," reads an old Time magazine profile, "who could probably run Christie's and Sotheby's from inside the can."

But the drivel dried up Friday morning, when Connor was arrested in Woonsocket, a gritty mill town with zero tolerance for bullshit. Police allege he tried to sneak out of a Rite Aid pharmacy with a $20 pair of sunglasses tucked up his sleeve.

"To us, he's just another shoplifter," said Captain Ed Lee.

"He was downsizing," quipped another officer who declined to give his name.

Connor, 68, was arraigned Tuesday morning on a charge of misdemeanor shoplifting and released on his own recognizance. He pleaded not guilty.

Connor's wild reputation is partly the result of his own public relations campaign. Unlike most underworld figures, he can't say no to an interview. But there's no denying his 40-year outlaw career has been remarkable.

In 1975 he walked into Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in broad daylight and lifted a Rembrandt off a gallery wall. An accomplice brandished a gun to keep art lovers and security guards at bay.

He arranged the return of the Rembrandt in exchange for a favorable plea, and never served time. To the embarrassment of some in law enforcement, he has never tired of recounting the details.

But the most famous caper Connor claims is one for which he's never been charged — and one he may only know through news reports. In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers gained access to Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Once inside, they overpowered two security guards and bound them with duct tape. Then they wandered the galleries, taking what they liked. When they left, 13 pieces were missing.

The loot included three of the Gardner's most valuable paintings: Vermeer's The Concert and two Rembrandts, A Lady and Gentleman in Black and Storm On the Sea of Galilee. Those paintings alone are estimated to be worth more than $300 million — prompting some to call the Gardner case the biggest museum heist in history. The theft remains unsolved, despite a $5 million reward.

Connor was nowhere near Boston on the night in question. He was in a jail cell in Illinois, where he'd made the mistake of attempting to sell an undercover federal agent a sizable amount of cocaine and two 17th-century paintings long missing from an Amherst College gallery. He served 10 years.

Within a few years of the Gardner heist several criminals began hinting they'd been involved and were ready to sell book or movie rights. No one gave serious thought to the offers until Connor spoke up, claiming he'd been the mastermind. To cover his ass he said he'd plotted the robbery years earlier as nothing more than an intellectual exercise, and two pals later decided to put the plan to use. The cronies he named in his story were both conveniently dead.

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