Where’s the Monet? The Top 10 Art Heists of All Time
The image of an art thief can inspire a pretty glamorous picture. Suave, cultured, multilingual- an art thief is a connoisseur of masterpieces, someone who hangs priceless works of art with great admiration in a secret, wood-paneled room (preferably hidden through a bookcase). The thief no doubt enjoys a glass of vintage Scotch or Merlot while studying the loot. Verdi’s La Traviata plays in the background – on a gramophone, on repeat. It’s all very civilized…right? Well, add in war looting, cultural vandalism, armed robbery, dangerous criminals, and bumbling crooks to get a more realistic picture. Make no mistake, the art world has a dark side and no art heist is complete without a healthy dose of suspense, intrigue, and even humor. Regardless of the outcome, each story speaks to the social power of artwork and its recognizable value as a commodity worth fighting for. From the Christmas Eve theft to the notorious case of the missing Mona Lisa, here are the top ten art heists are of all time:
1. Hans Memling, The Last Judgement, 1473
Dutch painter Hans Memling‘s triptych of The Last Judgement was stolen by Polish pirates in 1473 while on a ship bound for Florence. The work was brought to a cathedral in Gdańsk, Poland where it remains today. It’s notable as being the first documented art heist.
2. Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1911
In 1911, Vincenzo Perrugio, an Italian immigrant who worked at the Louvre Museum, walked off with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and committed one of the most famous art thefts in history. After hiding overnight in a cupboard within the museum, Perrugio removed the painting from its frame and escaped unnoticed. No one even detected that the piece was missing until the next day! Perrugio kept it hidden in his apartment in Paris for nearly two years, trying to sell it, but finding no success. He eventually contacted an art dealer in Florence named Alfred Geri who agreed to meet with him and inspect the validity of the work. Once the piece was authenticated, Geri called the authorities and Perrugio was arrested and charged. The notoriety of the case launched the Mona Lisa to a new level of fame. The Louvre sees almost 9 million visitors a year and most clamor to get a peek at that famous, smiling face.
3. Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, World War II (1939-1945)
To date, World War II (1939-1945) was the deadliest conflict in human history. It was also ripe with art theft by both Allied and Axis powers. Particularly devastating was the looting committed by the Nazi regime towards the displaced and murdered Jewish families throughout Europe. Organization such as The Art Loss Register and The World Jewish Restitution Organization have made great efforts to return works to their rightful owners/heirs; but much of the art is still lost or it provenance called into question by museums currently counting the works in their collections. One of the most successful restitution cases was that of the Republic of Austria vs. Altmann. In 2004, Maria Altman challenged the Austrian government to return a Nazi-looted painting made by Gustav Klimt of her late aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, a socialite and art enthusiast in 1900s Vienna. The piece was considered a national treasure and the government claimed the work had been left to the country in Altmann’s aunt’s will despite its possession by the Nazis. However, further investigation revealed that the painting was part of Altmann’s late uncle’s estate and left to his remaining heirs. Altmann won the case and brought the painting to the United States. It sold for $135 million in 2006 and currently resides at the Neue Galerie in New York City.
4. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, 1985
Mexico City has one of the highest crime rates in the world and is no stranger to art theft. One of its most famous heists took place in 1985 when two thieves broke into the city’s National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve. No Santa. No cookie crumbs as evidence. This was a well-orchestrated break-in that took place through the air-conditioning ducts. Over 120 well-known and priceless artifacts were stolen, many dating from the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. One vase was worth over $20 million. Most of the pieces were recovered in 1989 when the thieves – Carlos Perches Trevino and Ramon Sardina Garcia – were arrested after trying to sell the goods on the black market.
5. New York Warehouse, 1986
It was an inside job! In 1986, London art dealer Houshang Mahboubian and Manhattan antiques dealer Nedjatollah Sakhai planned a scheme to steal from themselves via a third party and collect the insurance on forged artwork they had allegedly been tricked into buying. It was going to be an $18 million insurance claim but the planned robbery never made it past the break-in as police had been tipped off and apprehended the would-be burglars onsite at a warehouse in Queens, NY. Mahboubian and Sakhai were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and attempted grand larceny in 1987.
6. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1990
Images stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (From Left to Right): Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, 1633, Source: FBI; Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, about 1665, Source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
America’s greatest art heist has long been considered the unsolved theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Over $500 million worth of artwork was stolen by two men who gained access to the museum in the early morning by impersonating police officers, each donning a fake, black mustache. They tied up the security guards and proceeded to loot masterpiece after masterpiece off the museums wall: works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet, names any art lover would toast with great affection. The museum continues to offer a $5 million reward for the recovery of the lost art. Recent investigations uncovered the identities of the two thieves, but as both are deceased, the mystery remains and the FBI continues to search for any information about the missing artwork.
7. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1994
We guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, as that may explain why Edvard Munch’s The Scream, in its various iterations, has been repeatedly stolen from art collections throughout Europe. One of the most notable heists occurred at The National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 on the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. It took two thieves approximately fifty seconds to break in and steal the work – one of the two canvas versions of The Scream. Before exiting, they made sure to write a quick note saying, “Thousand thanks for the poor security”. Everything was caught on security cameras, but no immediate suspects were identified. A month after the theft, the museum received a ransom request of $1 million, but refused to cave to the demands. British detectives went undercover, posing as art buyers willing to pay £250,000 for the painting. The thieves took the bait and three months later they were apprehended in a small coastal town just south of Oslo. Munch’s masterpiece was recovered with only minimal damage and returned to the museum.
8. Cooperman Art Theft Hoax, Los Angeles, California, 1999
Party like it’s 1999. That’s probably what Los Angeles ophthalmologist Steven G. Copperman told himself when he planned to cash in over $17 million in insurance after planning theft of his own artwork in July of 1999. He staged a roberty of two paintings, works by Picasso and Monet, and was soon convicted of insurance fraud. He spent 3 years in prison.
9. Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 2005
Statistically speaking, only 5 to 10% of stolen artwork is ever recovered. And even when a case is solved, the outcome isn’t always what you’d expect. In 2005, The Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, England lost an outdoor, bronze sculpture weighing two tons and valued at £3 million. Police sadly discovered that the work, Reclining Figure, had been melted down and sold as scrap metal for less than £1,500. Although devastating, the outcome of the heist inspired more effective security procedures to protect public artwork throughout Great Britain.
10. E.G. Bührle Collection, Zurich, 2008
Images (From Left to Right): Claude Monet, Poppies near Vétheuil 1879, Source: Agence France Presse- Getty Images; Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Chestnut Branches, 1890, Source: Agence France Presse- Getty Images;
Act like you own the place. That must have been the mantra of the three men who sauntered in broad daylight into the E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland and walked out with four nineteenth-century masterpieces. It was 2008 and the heist took place under the un-watchful eyes of museum security. The works – a Cézanne, a Monet, a Degas, and a Van Gogh (good taste!) – were valued at around $163 million and all conveniently hanging in the same room. Thankfully, all four of the paintings were recovered and returned undamaged to the museum on separate occasions from 2008 to 2012.
Featured Image (From Left to Right): Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, Source: Wikipedia; Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, Source: PabloPicasso.org; Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa- Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, c. 1503-1519, Source: RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado