We have been baffled by stories of numerous attempts that have been made by countless people to get their very nefarious hands on some really famous artworks. What surprised us even more was that some were able to get away with it!
We take a look at eleven of some really famous cases of art heists, a few of which have been resolved, along with some perplexing cases that remain yet unsolved.
THE LOUVRE (1911)
The Mona Lisa was stolen by Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian immigrant and Louvre employee, in 1911. Due to lax security, he simply walked into the museum, grabbed the painting and left. He was caught two years later trying to sell the piece to an Italian museum in Perugia, and given a one-year sentence. The Louvre has stepped up its security ever since.
THE ISABELLA GARDNER MUSEUM, BOSTON (1990)
Two men managed to steal between $200 million and $300 million in paintings from Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum, by pretending to be police officers. On March 18, 1990, thieves knocked on the museum’s door, dressed as police officers apparently looking into a complaint of disturbance at the museum. They were able to fool the guards on duty and wandered in without any problems.
While the Gardener Museum is the site of the biggest heist in history, it wasn’t the heist of the biggest work of art.
MAHMOUD KHALIL MUSEUM, EGYPT (2010)
A Van Gogh painting, “Poppy Flowers” was stolen from an Egyptian Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2010. The painting is worth almost $55 million, and has not yet been recovered. A lack of security maintenance is to blame for this robbery as well; a reported 36 of the museum’s 43 security cameras were not functioning the day of the painting’s theft.
This robbery is especially noteworthy because it was not the first time “Poppy Flowers” was stolen, it was also taken in 1978, later recovered in Kuwait.
NORWEGIAN MUNCH MUSEUM (2004)
One of the most famous art heists in recent history happened in 2004 in the Norwegian Munch Museum. The thieves only stole two paintings, one of Edvard Munch paintings of “Scream” and “Madonna”. The value of the two paintings together is around 19 million dollars. In the case of this heist, poor security measures have been to blame. The two pieces were simply hanging on wires on the walls of the museum and were apparently fairly easy to remove and run with.
Both paintings were recovered two years later in 2006, but they had suffered considerable damage.
NATIONAL FINE ARTS MUSEUM, PARAGUAY (2002)
In July 2002, Paraguay hosted the most valuable art exhibition in its history. Then a group of criminals broke in and stole five paintings. The criminals dug a tunnel to the museum, 10 metres underground from a shop 25 metres away.
The thieves left with more than a million dollars’ worth of art. The stolen works included “Self Portrait” by Esteban Murillo, “The Virgin Mary and Jesus” by Gustave Coubert and Adolphe Piot’s “Landscape.” As of early 2012, the paintings were still missing.
CHACARA DO CEU ART MUSEUM, BRAZIL (2006)
Using the cover of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, gunmen took off with some of Brazil’s most treasured paintings in an audacious robbery. They stole works by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Dalí, worth a total of £30 million, from the Chacara do Ceu museum before vanishing among the revellers.
MUSEE D’ ART MODERNE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS (2010)
“Le pigeon aux petits pois” (The Pigeon with Green Peas) by Pablo Picasso was stolen from Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010. It has reported that the thief, out of fear, threw the painting into garbage shortly after stealing it. The painting was collected along with the garbage and was never recovered.
There were a total of five paintings that were stolen, Dove with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso (painted in 1911), Pastoral by Henri Matisse (1906), Olive Tree near l’Estaque by Georges Braque (1906), Woman with Fan by Amedeo Modigliani (1919) and Still Life with Candlestick by Fernand Leger (1922)
Pablo Picasso paintings are the most commonly stolen in comparison to all other artists. To date, 660 Picasso paintings have gone missing because of art theft.
THE SWEDISH NATIONAL MUSEUM (2000)
The gang meticulously planned a heist at the Swedish National Museum. They used machine guns to deter anyone from approaching them, bombs to distract police, and laid spikes on the road so that cars with flat tires couldn’t respond to an alarm.
The thieves stole two Renoirs, “Young Parisian” and “Conversation with the Gardner,” and a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The paintings were valued at $30 million combined.
The perpetrators were arrested two weeks later, however, the works didn’t start reappearing until several years later. During a drug raid in 2001, Swedish narcotics police stumbled upon “Conversation with the Gardener”in 2005, Danish police recovered the Rembrandt self-portrait during an attempted sale in Copenhagen. The FBI lists “Young Parisian” as also having been recovered.
WHITWORTH ART GALLERY, MANCHESTER (2003)
Police suspected professional art thieves after a 2003 heist in which robbers evaded alarms, security guards and cameras to swipe a Gauguin, a Van Gogh, and a Picasso. To their surprise, the paintings were discovered in public lavatory near the museum, with a handwritten note attached, which read: “The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security.” While the authorities were suspicious about the note, the Whitworth Gallery did improve their security.
VAN GOGH MUSEUM, AMSTERDAM (1991)
In 1991, two thieves broke into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and stole 20 paintings, including the “Sunflowers”. All of the paintings were found intact in the getaway car hours later. But in 2002, 11 years later, two thieves made off with two paintings from the same Van Gogh Museum, “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen”. They were soon caught and sentenced in 2003, but the paintings have not been recovered yet.
DRUMLANRIG CASTLE, SCOTLAND (2003)
In 2003, the Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Madonna with the Yarnwinder”, valued at between $45 million and $50 million, was stolen from the Duke of Buccleuch’s home in Scotland. Two men joined a public tour of the house and overpowered the guide to steal the painting. The painting remained missing until 2007 when it was discovered in a Scottish law office. Several people were arrested including two lawyers.
Have you come across any famous art heists which we have not mentioned here? Let us know in the comments.
Sources: TheTelegraph.co.uk, Wikipedia.com