Thursday, March 28, 2013

Expert Doubts Philly Mob's Art Connection

A stolen Rembrandt
By George Anastasia

The bottom line is that the Philadelphia  mob has always been a bottom-line kind of outfit.

So if mob boss Joe Ligambi or any of his associates had information about the art work  stolen from a Boston museum 23 years ago, they would have cashed that info in for the $5 million reward.

That, at least, is the view of Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who specialized in art theft and who spent the bulk of his career working out of the FBI’s Philadelphia office.

“I sat next to the organized crime squad guys,” Wittman said in a telephone interview from his suburban Philadelphia office this week. “If they had heard anything, I would have known about it. We didn’t hear a thing.”

The FBI in Boston announced last week that it now knew who was behind the infamous art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990. But authorities did not disclose the names of the suspects.

Instead, they hinted at mob connections to both the heist and attempts to move the $500 million in priceless art work that was stolen. The take included  a Vermeer, a Manet, three Rembrandts and five works by Degas.

The FBI announcement included speculation that the art was being “shopped” in the Philadelphia area 10 years ago and that some local mobsters were trying to expedite the sale.

Wittman said he’s “skeptical.”

“I can’t say it didn’t happen,” said the veteran investigator who during his career was credited with recovering hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen art works. “But it doesn’t make sense.”

Ten years ago, Wittman points out, the statute of limitation for the theft of the art work had expired and anyone who could lead authorities to the stolen booty could have claimed a $5 million reward.

“No questions asked,” said Wittman who now heads his own art security firm. 

If Ligambi or other members of his crew had a shot to cash in, he believes they would have jumped at the chance.

They could have done it through one of their lawyers, Wittman said. Or anonymously through a lawyer who had no clear connection to mob clients.

A stolen Manet
“There would have been nothing illegal about it at all,” he said. “If the art had shown up in their territory and they led us to it, it was free money for them. You know those guys. What do you think?”

Ligambi was just tried on racketeering and gambling charges that included allegations that he and two top associates took over a video poker machine distribution network that involved about 30 poker machines. Some of the machines, according to testimony, generated $1,000-a-week. Others a few hundred.

A $5 million reward makes that operation look like peanuts and, given Ligambi's bottom line, let's-make-money approach, it would appear Wittman has a point.

The jury hung on a racketeering conspiracy charge against Ligambi and two others. The case is to be retried in October. There has been some talk that the mob boss doesn't have -- or isn't willing to spend -- the cash needed to hire Edwin Jacobs Jr. to represent him again.

Joe Ligambi as a secret patron of the arts makes for a good story, Wittman said. But Joe Ligambi, the mob boss out to make a buck, is a more realistic profile.

“The whole Philly thing just doesn’t make sense,” Wittman said. “If you had the art works and were looking to sell them to someone in Philadelphia, would you go to the trouble and risk of bringing the art to Philadelphia or would you just tell a potential buyer to hop on a plane and fly to Boston. It’s less than an hour.. What would be the purpose of bringing the art to Philadelphia?”

Was the Philadelphia mob involved in trying to find a buyer? Perhaps.

But did local wiseguy ever have their hands on the art works or know where they had been stashed? Unlikely, says Wittman, whose life as an undercover FBI agent tracking stolen treasure around the world is recounted in "Priceless," a book he co-authored with reporter John Shiffman. 

There's also this.
The Philadelphia mob has a less than stellar track record in dealing with valuable stolen property. Back in the 1990s, then mob boss Ralph Natale had a connection with a Cleveland mobster who had stolen a $110,000 Lamborghini but was unable to find a buyer for the automobile.
Like the stolen art work at the Gardner, the Lamborghini was difficult to move because it was so easily recognizable. The stolen vehicle was a 1988 fuel-injected 500S model, anniversary edition, with gold wheels and only five thousand miles on the odometer. Several years after it was stolen, the mobster in Cleveland, unable to find a buyer, gave the car to Natale.
The car was shipped to Philadelphia and stored in a South Philadelphia garage. Natale told mob associates Martin Angelina and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino that it was theirs to sell. Angelina made a "connection" who offered $20,000. Angelina and Merlino took the deal, not knowing the "buyer" was an undercover FBI agent who had been tracking the stolen vehicle for several years. 
But there was more.
Angelina boasted that he could get fake papers -- title and tags -- for the car. He failed to do so. He also got spooked and thought the garage was under surveillance so he and an associate tried to move the car.

The battery was dead, so they rented a Ryder panel truck. Problem was, there was no ramp on that truck. They got two wooden planks, fashioned a makeshift ramp and tried to push the $110,000, limited edition Lamborghini into the panel truck.
The car slipped off the ramp and crashed to the floor of the garage. Front end and bumper damage further reduced the sale price of the six-figure piece of priceless automotive machinery. Angelina eventually agreed to take $5,300 for the car.
The transaction became part of the racketeering case that landed him, Merlino and five others in jail in 2001.
If the FBI in Boston is correct, it would have been shortly after that racketeering trial that the Philadelphia mob got involved in the art heist case.
There are some facts to support that supposition. In the late 1990s, both Merlino and George Borgesi had become close associates of a crew of Boston wiseguys headed by Robert Luisi Jr. Borgesi, who is Ligambi's nephew, was convicted in the 2001 case and is a co-defendant with Ligambi in the pending case.
Like his uncle, Borgesi is not one to pass on a deal where money could to be made. No dummy, he also would have been smart enough to realize the upside of merely turning the priceless Boston art work in for the reward -- no questions asked.
So while it may have made for an interesting story, a Philadelphia mob connection to one of the most famous art thefts in American history may be little more than idle speculation.

Two men posing as police officers gained entry to the Gardner Museum on March 19, 1990, and made off with the treasured art work. The FBI now says it knows the identities of those men, but won't say who they are.

Wittman said he doesn't believe the thieves had been commissioned by a collector to take the work. Several paintings were cut out of their frames, a procedure that puts the art work at risk in both the short- and long-term. No collector would have sent anyone in to do that, Wittman said.
Instead, the heist looks like a grab-and-run by hustlers who were attracted by the value of the property, but who didn't realize how difficult it would be to find buyers for their stash.
In that regard, they were not unlike the mobster from Cleveland who grabbed a priceless Lamborghini and then didn't know what to do with it. That treasure did, in fact, end up in Philadelphia. And some local wiseguys ended up in jail.

Contact George Anastasia at

No comments

Thoughtful commentary welcome. Trolling, harassing, and defaming not welcome. Consistent with 47 U.S.C. 230, we have the right to delete without warning any comments we believe are obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.