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Game theory in the popular press.

Easel Pickings: For This Art Collector, Priceless Paintings are Get-Out-of Jail Cards

Wall Street Journal
William M. Carley
September 29, 1997
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Police and Museums Listen When Myles Connor Says He'll Find a Rembrandt —`You're Rotten to the Core'

Myles Connor, a notorious Boston art thief, was dining in a Bloomington, Ill., restaurant 150 miles south of Chicago a few years ago. His companion seemed wonderfully interested in purchasing stolen art.

"You know," Mr. Connor said as he leaned across the table, "the FBI would really like to know where I am right now. But those guys are so stupid they haven't got a clue."

Unfortunately for Mr. Connor, his companion was an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- Thomas Daly, who tells the story. Incidents such as this have helped land Mr. Connor in jail many a time in his criminal career -- and in jail Mr. Connor sits.

But now, Mr. Connor is playing what law-enforcement officers say may be a far cagier game. He and a younger associate, William "Billy" Youngworth, who also has a criminal record, have been claiming that they can help crack the spectacular case involving art theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston that has frustrated detectives and art lovers since 1990.

In interviews published in the Boston Herald, the two have suggested they can arrange the return of the Gardner art -- if only Mr. Youngworth can get leniency on state charges that he possessed a stolen van, and if Mr. Connor can be released from the final 2 1/2 years of his current 11-year federal sentence for interstate transportation of stolen art. They have also suggested they would like the $5 million reward that has been offered for the art's return.

The possibility that negotiations with the two men might lead to return of the 13 stolen Gardner artworks, including a rare Vermeer and three Rembrandts, has sent the art world into a tizzy. People cringe at the prospect of dealing with Mr. Connor. "Unfortunately, you're rotten to the core," federal District Judge Richard Mills told Mr. Connor in Springfield, Ill., when giving him his current prison sentence.

At the same time, though, museum curators across the country, as well as wealthy and powerful people who support museums, are fixated on the idea of having the Gardner masterpieces returned.

"Let's not be squeamish in dealing with these guys; let's get the art back," says Weld Henshaw, an attorney with the top Boston firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart who has represented victims in several art- theft cases. A Gardner spokeswoman says the museum is "very hopeful" the paintings will be returned.

Whether Mr. Connor turns up the Gardner art or not -- and federal investigators are taking his claim seriously -- his career sheds light on the murky world of art theft. His tactics show how crooks often wait a decade or more to sell lesser-known stolen artworks, when they are no longer "hot." His methods also help answer a riddle that often puzzles art lovers: Why do thieves steal artworks so well-known and so recognizably stolen that only a fool would buy them?

The answer is that they often turn Cezannes and Monets into bargaining chips. When they get into trouble with authorities, they make behind-the-scenes deals with prosecutors to return art in exchange for leniency. Or as Judge Mills told Mr. Connor: "You barter."

Mr. Connor has dealt in looted art ranging from Rembrandts to grandfather clocks, and his victims have ranged from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Amherst College to private estates throughout New England.

Who carried out the Gardner theft isn't known; Messrs. Connor and Youngworth aren't suspects because both were behind bars at the time. But investigators suspect that Mr. Connor, because of his history of handling stolen art, may have learned the whereabouts of the Gardner loot.

Short, red-haired and usually bearded, the 54-year-old Mr. Connor is the brainy son of a suburban Boston policeman. "Myles is exceptionally bright," says Byron Cudmore, who as assistant U.S. attorney in Springfield prosecuted Mr. Connor in 1990.

As early as 1966, when he was just 23, Mr. Connor was being pursued in connection with an art theft. Cornered on an apartment rooftop in Boston by the Massachusetts State Police, he shot and wounded a trooper before being captured. That contributed to a continuing interest in Mr. Connor by the state police. It also led to a guilty plea in state court and imprisonment for assault with intent to murder.

When the Woolworth mansion in Winthrop, Maine, was looted of art and antiques in 1973, the FBI set up a sting, pretending to be in the market for the stolen works. The agency soon found itself negotiating with Mr. Connor. When he led the agents to a U-Haul truck in a Cape Cod, Mass., parking lot on May 18, 1974, they found one painting by Andrew Wyeth and three by N.C. Wyeth, all stolen from the Woolworth estate. Mr. Connor was arrested on federal charges of interstate transportation of stolen art and faced other state charges. He pleaded guilty to both.

Years later, in 1989, he described to Mr. Daly, the undercover agent, how he managed to limit the damage. Mr. Daly says Mr. Connor's account went like this:

Seeking leniency on the state and federal charges, Mr. Connor told a Massachusetts State Police official that he could return some minor stolen art. When the official spurned that offer, Mr. Connor exclaimed: "What will it take to get me off, a Rembrandt?"

When the state-police official sounded more receptive to that, "Myles told me that he proceeded to arrange the theft of a Rembrandt from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts," Mr. Daly says.

Shortly after Mr. Connor's chat with the state-police official, two men yanked a Rembrandt portrait off the wall of the Boston museum and, firing shots at guards, ran out the door and escaped in a waiting car. Mr. Connor arranged the return of the Rembrandt, with a man in a ski mask leaving the painting in a police-car trunk in downtown Boston.

"Myles told me he just loved pulling that off, saying `It was just like Hollywood,'" Mr. Daly says.

Mr. Connor's longtime attorney, Martin Leppo of Boston, confirms that he was able to arrange for the federal and state sentences to run concurrently -- allowing his client to get out of jail early -- because of Mr. Connor's help in recovering the Rembrandt. As for Mr. Connor arranging the Rembrandt theft, Mr. Leppo says, "I never heard that, and Myles has said that lots of facts have been distorted" by FBI agents.

Another event, in 1975, was to have repercussions much later. A burglar crept into an Amherst College gallery in Amherst, Mass., one night, stealing several paintings and Indian artifacts. The FBI's Mr. Daly says Mr. Connor later told him that he had personally pulled off the burglary. The Amherst paintings didn't surface until 14 years later.

Mr. Connor, meanwhile, played a role in another art case. In the wealthy Boston suburb of Cohasset, a pool party was getting under way in the summer of 1978. At the party, a former baby sitter for the wealthy Arthur Herrington family began describing valuable paintings hanging in the Herringtons' living room.

A few nights later, thieves crept into the Herrington house and made off with six paintings, including a Rembrandt, an El Greco and a Pieter Brueghel, as well as two Chinese Ming vases. A year later, Boston detectives recovered the art in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, an old haunt of Mr. Connor's.

Mr. Henshaw, a Boston attorney who represented the Herrington family, says Mr. Connor arranged for the return of the art. The two men who had stolen the art later pleaded guilty. Mr. Connor was never charged.

Mr. Connor nevertheless spent from 1979 to 1985 in Massachusetts jails. He had been convicted of advising two thugs how to murder two teenage girls, but his conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was acquitted at a second trial.

Mr. Connor moved to a farm near Lexington, Ky. There he told a neighbor about stolen art he wanted to sell, according to federal- court documents. The neighbor said he knew just the man to buy it. (The neighbor, once a petty crook himself, telephoned Alan Medina, a Bloomington FBI agent he knew. The FBI decided to set up another sting.)

According to Judge Mills's written ruling on file in federal court in Springfield, Mr. Connor and his neighbor drove to the Ramada Inn in Bloomington, where in December 1988 they met "Joe." Joe was actually FBI Agent Daly, who for the next four months was to deal with Mr. Connor under the pretext of being interested in stolen art for resale in Asia. While hidden FBI cameras videotaped the scene, Mr. Connor and his neighbor hauled in a grandfather clock they had brought in a pickup truck. Saying he had "liberated" the clock from an estate, Mr. Connor struck a deal to sell it to Joe for $10,000.

"At first we weren't sure where the clock was from," Mr. Daly says. The clock, it turned out, was made by famed 18th-century American clockmaker Simon Willard and had been stolen from the Woolworth estate 16 years earlier.

Mr. Connor returned to Kentucky. But as weeks rolled by, he began phoning Joe to negotiate additional deals. In January 1989, Mr. Connor again drove to Bloomington from Kentucky, this time bringing two paintings, one by Henrick Cornelisz, the other by Pieter Lastman, according to Judge Mills's ruling. After haggling, the undercover FBI agent gave Mr. Connor $10,000, with the balance of the $60,000 price for both paintings to be paid later.

The FBI rushed the pictures to Chicago's Art Institute, where a curator identified the paintings, according to an internal FBI report on file in Springfield federal court. They were among the artworks which had been stolen 14 years earlier from Amherst College.

Now Mr. Connor began talking of selling drugs. "He said he could set up a regular pipeline to supply students" at the Illinois State University campus near Bloomington, Mr. Daly recalls. The agent agreed to advance $25,000 to Mr. Connor to buy cocaine in Florida; the two planned a meeting in a sushi bar in a terminal at Boston's Logan Airport, where the undercover agent was to hand over a briefcase with the cash.

On the appointed day Mr. Daly, posing as Joe, was in the sushi bar, with six armed FBI agents in plainclothes scattered around to provide protection if necessary. Mr. Connor walked in, not knowing that he was being followed by several undercover Massachusetts state troopers. The troopers had picked up Mr. Connor's trail shortly after his return to Massachusetts -- and they were unaware they were walking into the midst of an FBI sting.

"Myles and I could just feel all the surveillance, and things were getting very tense," recalls FBI Agent Daly. The two bolted down their sushi; Mr. Connor picked up the briefcase with the $25,000, then walked out of the restaurant unchallenged, shortly afterward boarding a jet for Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (It was only later that the FBI men and the troopers learned of each other's presence in the restaurant.)

A week later, in March 1989, Mr. Connor returned to Bloomington with a kilogram of cocaine. While hidden FBI cameras recorded, Mr. Connor turned over the cocaine in a townhouse the FBI had rented. Moments later, as "Joe" was about to leave, an FBI SWAT team burst in, threw Mr. Connor onto a bed, handcuffed him and arrested him.

By June, Mr. Connor had hatched a plan to escape from the Menard County jail, near Springfield, where he was being held awaiting trial. According to an affidavit by U.S. Marshall Mark McClish filed in Springfield federal court, Mr. Connor had a cellmate telephone Mr. Connor's girlfriend in Boston, who had another friend send a book to the cellmate via Federal Express. In its binding, the book contained four hidden hacksaw blades. When the cellmate got scared and informed guards, a search of the cell disclosed a five-inch cut had been made in the ceiling.

Pretending the escape had been carried out successfully, an undercover FBI agent called the Boston girlfriend, who then had a second girlfriend speed to Menard County with black dye to color Mr. Connor's red hair, a razor to shave his beard and a .38-caliber revolver. Arrested by federal agents, both women pleaded guilty in Springfield federal court to conspiring to aid the planned escape.

Mr. Connor pleaded guilty to transporting stolen property, distributing drugs and attempted escape. He cooperated with prosecutors by arranging the return of Indian artifacts that had also been stolen from Amherst College. And on July 16, 1990, standing before Judge Mills for sentencing, he asked for leniency.

"The world is a stage, and each must play his part," Mr. Connor said. His role really wasn't so bad, he argued, not even having hacksaw blades smuggled in for an escape. "Bringing hacksaw blades into an institution . . . in Massachusetts, it's kind of a normal thing," he said.

As for dealing in stolen art and drugs, he did that only because he had fallen in with bad people, Mr. Connor said. He concluded: "Yes, I did what I did do. And you can believe me that I'm sorry for it. You can believe that I would never do it again."

Judge Mills was unconvinced. "Each time in the past you've been nailed with something . . . you'll come in and plead and you'll barter off this and you'll barter off that. And all of a sudden another piece of antiquary will surface."

After reviewing Mr. Connor's record, the judge voiced his "rotten to the core" description. Then he added: "You've done nothing but hurt, and take, steal, barter, deal in stolen property, weapons involved, attempted escape. . . . We simply don't need you, Mr. Connor."

Judge Mills meted out a 20-year jail sentence, double what federal guidelines called for. The sentence was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, and another federal judge gave Mr. Connor his current 11-year sentence.

Whether Mr. Connor has information on the Gardner treasures may not become evident for weeks. The U.S. attorney's staff in Boston has been talking with his attorney, Mr. Leppo, but so far without success.

Mr. Leppo sounds optimistic. "Myles knows all kinds of people in the art world," he says, "people in the legitimate art world and people on the far side of the law, so if there's anybody who can get the Gardner art back, it's Myles."

Copyright Wall Street Journal