The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum staff at first didn't get too excited when a newspaper reporter wrote that he had glimpsed Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by flashlight in a warehouse nearly two weeks ago.

After all, the museum had followed up on hundreds of false leads since the masterpiece and 12 other works, including a Manet and two other Rembrandts, were stolen in one of the world's biggest art heists seven years ago.The Gardner's chief conservator sat down with Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg on Friday to ask him what exactly he'd seen. Now, Gardner officials say it's possible he may have viewed the real thing.

"It was clear from his answers you cannot rule it out," Joan Norris, the Gardner's marketing director, said Saturday.

But it's impossible to tell whether the painting is the original pilfered masterpiece without examining it, she said.

"We're talking about someone holding a masterpiece in a warehouse with a flashlight in the pitch dark and then (the Gardner's chief conservator) asking someone who has an untrained eye . . . specific questions," Norris said.

The unidentified museum conservator listened somberly as reporter Tom Mashberg described the flaking, cracked seascape and the artists' signature on the churning vessel's exposed rudder, Mashberg reported in Saturday's Herald.

His account convinced the Gardner to issue a plea to those holding the painting hostage: Keep it in its cardboard poster tube to prevent further damage. The museum also stressed the $5 million reward for the return of the paintings hinges on the works being in good condition.

"From the description provided by Herald reporter Tom Mashberg, this painting appears to be either a good copy or perhaps the original," the conservator said in a statement.

Mashberg won't reveal who took him to the warehouse.