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Quest to Solve 1990 Art Heist Gets New Life

September 23, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Disguised as police officers, thieves entered the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum here in March 1990 and pulled off what remains the largest unsolved art burglary in history. With the museum's night security guard bound and gagged, 13 works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others were cut from their frames. The missing masterpieces are valued at $200 million.

While art lovers reeled, authorities quickly identified key individuals they believed might help recover the stolen canvases. Just three days after the robbery, for example, federal agents contacted William P. Youngworth III, a self-described art dealer who was serving time on a forgery charge at the federal prison in Memphis, Tenn.

"How would you like to go home--today?" Youngworth said the agents asked. Sounds nice, Youngworth answered. "Help us get the paintings back," the agents replied. With only 60 days left on his sentence, Youngworth said, he declined the offer.

In the ensuing years, the hunt for the Gardner's stolen art has gone through peaks, valleys and long, disappointing plateaus. But in recent weeks momentum has picked up, featuring a car chase, dueling press conferences and a clandestine visit to a darkened warehouse by a tabloid newspaper reporter who claims to have seen "an item" that may be the Gardner's missing Rembrandt.

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And at the center of it all is none other than Youngworth.

"There's a short list of people in the art-acquisition business," said Youngworth, 38, who describes himself as a respectable merchant of antiques. "I seem to be high on that list."

Youngworth maintains that he can lead authorities to the stolen paintings. He would clearly like something in return. There are, for example, the charges pending against him of possessing illegal firearms and a stolen vehicle. He says the charges were trumped-up, and he hopes authorities will reconsider if he helps them on the Gardner theft.

He also wants immunity from prosecution on any charges stemming from the Gardner theft, and a $5-million reward. Finally, "based on loyalty to my oldest and dearest friend," he is demanding the release from prison of Myles J. Connor Jr., a notorious art thief.

Connor, like Youngworth, was behind bars when the Gardner theft occurred, awaiting sentencing on art-theft and drug convictions. He has helped federal authorities before. When a Rembrandt disappeared from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in 1975, Connor, then serving time for an unrelated art theft, provided information that helped to recover the $1-million painting. In return, Connor received a lighter sentence and a $30,000 reward.

In an interview, Youngworth explained his interest in helping Connor. "Myles and I love fine art. We want to see it cherished in its rightful place," he said.

Gardner Museum officials say that although every potential lead is taken seriously, they remain cautious. Of Youngworth's sudden prominence in the search, Joan Norris, Gardner marketing director, said: "We await the results of this exploration."

After he left prison in 1990, Youngworth came home to Boston, where he and his wife opened three antique stores. Authorities seeking information about the Gardner heist would "pop in a couple of times a year and give me the usual line: 'This is still high on our priority list,' " Youngworth said.

During one such surprise visit to Youngworth's antique warehouse in 1996, authorities seized a minivan and charged Youngworth with possession of a stolen vehicle. His trial on that charge is scheduled to begin today. In July, local police and FBI officials raided the warehouse again. Youngworth said the agents were especially interested in "papers I was storing for Myles."

After a 10-hour search, the agents took three antique firearms and a marijuana cigarette butt. The guns were inoperable, but authorities nevertheless charged him with a firearms violation. For good measure, and presumably to encourage his cooperation, they threw in a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. No trial date has been set for these most recent charges, but Youngworth is eager to make them disappear.

Last month, Youngworth announced that he had information about the Gardner case and was ready to deal. Since then, Youngworth said, law enforcement officials have not let him out of their sight. At one point, Youngworth said, he purposely led two Chevrolet Suburbans, presumably with undercover agents at the wheel, on a car chase so wild that the two utility vehicles ran into each other.

His attorney, Howard Lewis, said Youngworth is anxious to resolve the case but federal agents "are still playing games, still asking him to provide more proof." Lewis called that approach "retarded. The guy is not that stupid. We all know that if Bill comes up with a paint chip or a swatch, they're going to charge him with harboring stolen property."

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