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Two cons may hold the key to $200 million art theft

September 3, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ They are shady types, unlikely to get invitations to a Beacon Hill soiree or a gallery opening. Yet William P. Youngworth III and Myles J. Connor Jr. are very much in demand in the art world these days.

The two childhood pals _ one of them an art thief in prison, the other facing drug and weapons charges _ claim they can lead the FBI to the artwork stolen in a $300 million heist in 1990 at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Authorities don’t know if they’re for real yet. But investigators say they’re willing to deal with them until they find out otherwise.

``Agents of the FBI negotiate in certain areas on a daily basis,″ FBI spokesman Peter Ginieres said. ``It’s part and parcel of being an FBI agent or an assistant U.S. attorney.″

On Wednesday, Connor continued a weeklong journey from a federal prison in Pennsylvania to Boston to talk with federal agents. Youngworth, meanwhile, wants to set up an appointment with the feds after a court appearance Friday.

``It’s going to make a hell of a movie,″ said Youngworth’s attorney, Howard M. Lewis.

If there is a movie, most of the script remains a mystery.

The first scene, of course, would take place March 18, 1990, at the Gardner, where two thieves disguised as police officers tied up security guards and made off with a dozen paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas in the world’s biggest art theft.

Cut to ... nothing. Seven years pass without a significant break in the case. The reward grows from $1 million to $5 million.

Cut again, this time to a warehouse somewhere in the Northeast. In the dim beam of a flashlight, a Boston Herald reporter is shown what is purported to be ``Storm on the Sea of Galilee,″ Rembrandt’s only seascape and the most famous of the Gardner’s missing masterpieces.

Youngworth has said he arranged for the showing last month to bolster his claim that he and Connor, a convicted art thief, can get the goods. Both men were in custody at the time of the Gardner heist.

``They’re either go-betweens or hoaxers. We don’t know yet, do we?″ said Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a New York organization that collects information about missing art.

Exactly when and how Youngworth, an antiques dealer who once took karate lessons from Connor, entered the picture depends on whom you believe.

The FBI said Youngworth, 38, approached them in an effort to get prosecutors to drop the drug and weapons charges against him.

Lewis said federal agents showed up at Youngworth’s cell door three days after the theft in 1990 and have been looking to pressure him to cooperate ever since.

The lawyer said two searches of the Barn, Youngworth’s rambling home and antiques shop compound in Randolph, were engineered to drum up charges to use against Youngworth.

The first search, last year, turned up a stolen car and a box of ammunition. The second, in July, netted the butt of a marijuana cigarette and three antique guns that Lewis said don’t work.

``I believe all these charges stem from the local police and federal authorities’ frustration with their inability to solve the Gardner theft,″ he said. ``They’re creating their own bargaining position.″

Youngworth’s conditions: immunity from prosecution, the reward money and Connor’s immediate release from prison.

It would not be the first time Youngworth tried to trade information. In July, he helped authorities recover a wax seal that had been affixed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter. The seal was stolen in 1984.

``The authorities keep on promising Mr. Youngworth help. `Do these things for us.′ And he has. And they have broken every promise,″ Lewis said.

The FBI has met once with Youngworth but expressed more of an interest in Connor, 54, a former Massachusetts resident who is in the seventh year of a 10-year federal sentence for possession of cocaine and transporting stolen art.

Martin K. Leppo, Connor’s attorney, wouldn’t comment.

But newspaper reports said Connor had a criminal history going back to a 1965 art theft that left a police officer wounded and includes a conviction _ later overturned _ for ordering a double murder.

One item on Connor’s rap sheet: He pleaded guilty to a 1974 theft of Andrew Wyeth paintings from a Maine estate but dodged a prison sentence by arranging the return of a stolen $1 million Rembrandt to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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