There have been many art heists over the years – thieves masterfully breaking into highly-guarded museums, meticulously navigating top of the range security systems and simply walking away with millions of euros worth of art. Some masterpieces have been found, others returned. There are still paintings that remain unfound today, years after they were snatched from their place of residence. Art heists are still occurring today, even with such advanced security systems. If you’re just as intrigued by the subject as we are, here’s a list of some of the most famous art heists of all time.
1. WORLD FAMOUS AND RECORD-BREAKING ART HEISTS
Arguably the United States’ biggest art heist, Rembrandt’s ‘Storm of the Sea of Galilee’ was snatched along with 12 other masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The oil-on-canvas painting dates back to 1633. Rembrandt’s only seascape, the painting depicts the miracle of Jesus calming the storm of the Sea of Galilee.
On the morning of 18 March 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers, casually strolled into the museum and took the masterpieces from the wall, pulling off one of the most famous robberies of all time.
On 18 March, 2013, the FBI made a public announcement claiming that they knew who was responsible for the heist. After careful analysis, they had concluded that the robbery was committed by an organised crime group rather than petty criminals. The crime remains unsolved.
In more recent news, two other works by Rembrandt were stolen from Dulwich Picture Gallery, London in November 2019. However, the masterminds behind this particular heist were less successful than their Boston counterparts – not making it off gallery property before abandoning the paintings in the ground’s undergrowth only to flee from the advancing police.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time a Rembrandt has caught the eye of a thief strolling the halls of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. ‘Jacob de Gheyn III’, AKA the ‘Takeaway Rembrandt’ has been snatched from the South London gallery four times. In fact, the painting has earned itself a place in the Guinness World Records as the most stolen piece of art. According to The Times, the painting has ‘been recovered in a left-luggage office in Germany, on the back of a bicycle and under a bench in a graveyard in Streatham, south London.’
2. THE THEFT OF THE MOST FAMOUS PAINTING IN THE WORLD
When you think of Da Vinci’s ‘La Mona Lisa’, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have stolen it from La Louvre. The most famous painting in the world? How could that be possible? But in 1911, former La Louvre employee Vincenzo Perugia, managed to achieve the seemingly impossible. With easy access to the museum, Perugia entered the museum wearing the white smock all museum employees were expected to wear and so was indistinguishable. The perpetrator took the painting from the wall and carried it out the service doors. He kept the painting hidden in his Paris apartment for 2 years before travelling with it to Florence, Italy. It was only after attempting to sell the piece to a local gallerist that he finally got caught. ‘La Mona Lisa’ made its way back to La Louvre in 1913 where it still remains today.
So, why did Perugia steal ‘La Mona Lisa’? He wanted to bring the painting back to its homeland.
3. DARING UNDERCOVER OPERATIONS
It was in 1994 when Edvard Munch’s more famous painting, ‘The Scream’ was taken from the Norwegien National Gallery in Oslo. CCTV footage shows two men climbing up a ladder and entering the museum through a second-story window. Through the same window, they take the masterpiece and carry it off into the night but not without leaving a note reading, “Thanks for the poor security”.
After the gallery refused to pay a ransom, the Norweigen police set up a sting operation with help from the British police at Scotland Yard. Posing as art dealers, the British police detectives were able to recover the painting in an undercover operation. The painting was returned to the gallery on 7th May 1994. Check out this interview with one of the British detectives who was involved in the recovery operation.
That wasn’t the only time ‘The Scream’ was victim to an art heist. In August 2004, masked gunmen took ‘The Scream’ and Munch’s ‘Madonna’ from the walls of the Munch Museum in broad daylight. Although the Norwegian police arrested a suspect in connection with the theft, the artwork remained missing for two years.
In August 2006, police announced the recovery of the two paintings. Although the paintings were damaged (‘The Scream’ had moisture damage and ‘Madonna’ had some tears and two holes) the damage could be repaired. Before the restoration began, the paintings were put on display in the Munch Museum for a 5-day one-off exhibition. 5,500 visitors arrived to view the damaged artwork.
4. VINCENT VAN GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Poppy Flowers’ was swiped from Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum in August 2010 – and it’s yet to be recovered. At an estimated worth of US$55 million, the lack of security was to blame for the robbery. In fact, in October 2010, 11 culture ministry employees, including the Deputy Culture Minister and the museum’s director, were found guilty of negligence and professional delinquency.
That wasn’t the only time ‘Poppy Flowers’ fell victim to a robbery. It was also taken in 1978 from the same museum and was recovered 10 years later in Kuwait.
Van Gogh’s ‘View of the sea at Scheveningen’ and ‘Congregation leaving the reformed church in Nuenen’ was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 when two men climbed onto the roof of the museum and broke into the building. The paintings were finally recovered 14-years later during a raid on an Italian mafia group in 2016.
It took two years to restore the damaged paintings. During the conservation treatment, the museum discovered that the paintings were coated with a varnish and had yellowed.