GoodReads: 3 stars

Although I lived in Boston for a few years, I'd never visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or heard about the robbery that happened in March of 1990 - just weeks after I was born. As the largest unsolved art heist in history, the ISGM heist should have made for a fascinating book. Author Stephen Kurkjian of Boston Globe "Spotlight" fame (the Keaton film about the Boston Catholic Archdiocese child molestation scandal is worth a watch) should have been the perfect person to bring this story to life. Yet "Master Thieves" often repeats itself, meanders wildly, and drags on to an inconclusive conclusion. Kurkjian injects some Boston flavor and helpfully fleshes out some background on the Boston underworld, but ultimately this book is unsatisfying. I suppose I can't blame Kurkjian for not solving this notorious heist, but it certainly makes the book less compelling!

Throughout his investigation, Kurkjian emphasizes his belief that the robbery was a local job. He surprised me with his claim that most high-level art crime is not done for money - it's too hard to fence famous paintings. Instead, stolen paintings are used as bargaining chips in plea deals to get high-level mobsters out of jail. It's sort of beautiful in a way. How do you convince a judge to get a guy out of jail? You get his political and wealthy friends to persuade him. What do the wealthy care about that few other people do? Art. So Kurkjian thinks Boston mobsters stole the paintings, but then when they guy they wanted to get out died in prison, there was no longer any motivation for a trade. And in the meantime, maybe the paintings were accidentally destroyed in a flood... I dunno. Felt pretty tenuous to me.

Kurkjian did a nice job of describing the heist itself, as well as some of the messed up internal dynamics of the ISGM board. The lack of security at a museum with a multi-billion dollar art collection amazed me. I also enjoyed his sketches of some of the characters in the world of art crime investigation - particularly the somewhat shady Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register.

I wouldn't recommend this book unless you have a particular interest in the Boston underworld or in art crimes.

This book was part of my 2018 reading theme on "Crime and Punishment".