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The 10 most infamous art thefts and heists of all time

On this day back in 2006, a classic painting was recovered by the Norwegian police. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of the world’s most famous examples of Expressionism, had been stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo two years earlier. Robbers had stolen the 1910 tempera on cardboard version of the painting in broad daylight (Munch created six versions of The Scream over his lifetime). 

Rumours had circulated that the thieves destroyed the legendary art. The city of Oslo offered two million Norwegian kroner for information regarding the painting’s disappearance or location. The 1893 version of the painting, perhaps the most famous and identifiable of the six, had previously been stolen from Oslo’s National Gallery during the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Even as suspects were arrested and tried, the actual painting remained missing.

When The Scream was recovered, it remained in remarkable condition. Apart from some slight moisture damage, the work required little maintenance and restoration, returning to its previous spot at the Munch Museum, now with improved protection.

The Scream was far from the first or last high-profile art theft to occur. Unlike most crimes, art theft has a relatively low rate of case solving and recovery, and a large percentage of some of the most famous art thefts have remained unsolved. Today, we’re looking at ten of the most famous cases of art theft in history. Put on your ski mask and don’t trip any wires because it’s time to steal some priceless paintings.

The 10 most infamous art thefts:

Mona Lisa

By 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa had yet to become his universally hailed masterpiece that it is today. Although da Vinci was revered, the Mona Lisa was a smaller, less popular feature among his relatively few attributed works. But thanks to a disgruntled former Louvre employee, the Mona Lisa was about skyrocket in terms of notability.

Vincenzo Peruggia had learned during his training at the French museum that Napoleon Bonaparte had plundered Italian artwork during the Napoleonic Wars, and mistakenly believed the Mona Lisa was among them. Whether Peruggia was motivated by patriotism or financial gain, he entered the Louvre, removed the painting, wrapped it in a smock, and walked out the front door in late August.

In a strange way, Peruggia succeeded in his quest to return the Mona Lisa to his home country. When he attempted to sell the painting, Peruggia was arrested, and the work was heralded among the Italian public before being returned to the Louvre in 1913. The notoriety from the theft dramatically increased the painting’s status, and it now stands as one of the most famous works of art in the world.

(Credit: Louvre Museum)

Landscape with Cottages

During the early morning hours of September 4, 1972, three robbers gained entry to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. A skylight in the museum was under repair, and the thieves used this as an entry point, tying up the guards and stealing 18 paintings, pieces of jewellery, and figurines.

The most famous painting stolen was Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages, a piece valued at over $1 million at the time. The total estimated sum of the theft exceeds $11 million, making it the largest monetary robbery in Canadian history.

The thieves initially returned a painting from Jan Brueghel the Elder as a means to begin ransom negotiations, but these talks fell through. The stolen paintings have yet to be recovered, and the assailants are not known to this day. The most recent estimated value of the stolen works topped out at $20 million.

(Credit: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

The Concert

Despite his reputation for excellence, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was a slow and methodical worker, and there is a general consensus among art historians that he created fewer than a hundred works in his lifetime. The verifiable number of these artworks that survive is a paltry 34. 

Of those with known whereabouts, the number is 33 due to to the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Concert, one of Vermeer’s most acclaimed and valuable works, was stolen along with works by Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet. Two figures dressed as police officers restrained the guards and stole thirteen pieces.

The case remains unsolved, although the FBI believes there to be an apparent connection to the Boston Mafia. The entire net worth of the stolen art is approximately $500 million, making this the most valuable art theft of all time. The Concert itself is valued at $250 million. The museum is still offering $10 million for information that leads to the art’s return.

(Credit: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

Poppy Flowers

Most of Vincent Van Gogh’s art survives and is displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a remarkable feat of preservation considering that Van Gogh only sold a single painting in his lifetime. The few pieces not residing in The Netherlands are often kept under the strictest of purviews. And yet, Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers was stolen twice from the same museum.

The first robbery occurred in 1977 when a thief entered Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum and left with the painting. It was recovered ten years later in Kabul, where it was returned to the Khalil. Then, in August of 2010, the same painting was stolen from the same spot in the museum.

This time the recovery wasn’t successful. Two Italian’s were initially detained for the theft, but they were innocent of the robbery. Eleven of the museum’s employees were found guilty of negligence and professional delinquency, and the painting remains missing. If it ever is recovered, it likely won’t return to the Khalil, due to the museum’s repeated failure to protect the artwork.

(Credit: Egyptian Modern Art Museum)

View of Auvers-sur-Oise

The journey of Paul Cézanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise has a long history unto itself. Initially sold to noted art collector Victor Chocquet, the work eventually came into the possession of Berlin gallery owner Bruno Cassirer. Cassirer’s daughter Sophie then bequeathed the painting to Oxford University in order to avoid paying inheritance tax.

During New Year’s celebrations in 2000, thieves used the frequent fireworks as a cover to steal the painting. A smoke bomb was detonated, making it impossible to discern on security footage what the robber or robbers looked like. Initially, the museum believed that the alarm’s going off were due to the smoke of the celebrations.

The thieves knew exactly what they were after – no other paintings were stolen during the robbery. The Cézanne painting was valued at £3 million, and investigators believed that the nature of the crime could have possibly been inspired by the then-recent art heist films like Pierce Brosnan‘s The Thomas Crown Affair and Sean Connery‘s EntrapmentView of Auvers-sur-Oise remains missing over 20 years later.

(Credit: Ashmolean Museum)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen

Poor Van Gogh: one of the most recognisable artists of all time can’t seem to stop getting his work stolen. 

Created before he adopted his signature vibrant colour schemes and while he was living with his parents in the titular area of The Hague, Van Gogh was inspired enough by the Dutch Reformed Church at Nuenen near Eindhoven to paint a number of depictions, all of which are in muted tones.

This particular painting resided in the Singer Laren museum in north Holland. The museum itself was closed during the Covid-19 pandemic when a thief robbed it in March of 2020, stealing the £5 million work. Its current whereabouts are unknown, and it remains the only Van Gogh ever to have been stolen in The Netherlands and not recovered.

(Credit: Groninger Museum voor Stad en Lande)

Le pigeon aux petits pois

Pablo Picasso was no stranger to theft. His work is a constant target of thieves, as his style remains highly recognisable, and when the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, Picasso himself was even brought in under suspicion. 

During his Cubist phase, Picasso painted Le pigeon aux petits pois, one of his most highly acclaimed works. By the time it made its way to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the work was valued at nearly €23 million. That was until May of 2010, when a robber absconded with five paintings, including Le pigeon aux petit pois, for a combined value of over $123 million.

The theft of the Le pigeon aux petit pois is a reminder that art robbery can often lead to tragic outcomes. While the painting is still officially considered missing, the robber revealed that he threw the art in a trash container shortly after its theft, and the original work is thought to have been destroyed or ruined.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Portrait of a Lady

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady was actually a work that covered up another priceless piece: Klimt’s Portrait of a Young Lady, which was thought to be lost. In reality, Klimt painted over the original when its subject, with whom the artist was having an affair, unexpectedly died.

The history behind the painting was reason enough to give it a prime showcase among Klimt’s work. When it was stolen from the Galleria Ricci-Oddi in April 1997, the mystery only grew – the frame was found, but the opening from which it was apparently taken through was too small to fit the painting. A high-quality forgery was obtained addressed former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who was hiding from the law in Tunisia at the time.

The inexplicable mystery behind the painting and its theft only added to its notoriety. In 2019, gardeners were clearing away Ivy from the Galleria walls when they noticed a bag. The parcel contained Portrait of a Lady, and it was found that the painting had never actually left the gallery’s grounds.

(Credit: Galleria d’arte moderna Ricci Oddi)

Tete d’Arlequin

Just like Van Gogh, Picasso was a frequent victim of art theft. But the thief that stole the Tete d’Arlequin from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in October 2012 wound up with far more than they bargained for when they also stumbled across prominent works from the likes of de Haan, Matisse, Gaugin, and Monet. 

The works were estimated to be worth “hundreds of millions of euros” by the museum’s director. The origins of the theft, and the subsequent fate of the pieces, are as bizarre as they are tragic. The two thieves responsible reportedly met on the dating app Tinder, and they initially stashed the stolen work at one of their mother’s houses.

The mother is alleged to have subsequently burned the paintings in an effort to protect her son from prosecution. While she denied it in court, forensic evidence from her fireplace matched those associated with the paintings. Some of the world’s most valuable art, including two pieces from Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge series, were lost forever.

(Credit: National police, The Netherlands)

Portrait of a Young Man

So far, we’ve covered some of the crazier motivations and origins of art theft, including Tinder hookups, Italian patriotism, New Years celebrations, and unlocked skylights. But there’s still a prevalent addition to art theft history that we haven’t covered: Nazis!

The Nazis loved to plunder historical art and claim it for the Third Reich, and some of the most prominent works of 20th-century German art were subsequently burned by the Nazis in their crusade against culture. They also stole prominent works from artist’s of non-German lineage, including works by Van Gogh and Raphael that remain lost.

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man is the only stand-alone self-portrait of the legendary Italian Renaissance painter. It was plundered by the Nazis in Poland, and it was the most prominent piece of art not recovered after World War II. Rumours continue to proliferate that the work is being concealed by prominent Polish individuals, but it remains unknown whether the painting is lost or simply missing.

(Credit: Czartoryski Museum)

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