10 of the Most Stunning Art Thefts in World HistoryBy Jared Newman
Art Theft – Diamonds and dollar bills are fine spoils for thieves, but more cultured crooks know that just one work of art can be worth millions on the black market. That’s probably why art theft has persisted through the years, and why some of the world’s most famous paintings are prime targets. Here are 10 of the world’s most high-profile cases of art theft:
The Mona Lisa, 1911
Lifting a painting from the Louvre is probably easier when you work there, getting to know the schedule and the best hiding places. That’s not to say Vincenzo Perugia’s theft of the world’s most well-known painting wasn’t a gutsy move. It’s said that he longed to bring the painting to Italy, his home country, or, according to Time, he might’ve been trying to drive up the price of counterfeits. Whatever the motives, Perugia was caught trying sell the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. He only served a few months in jail.
Sao Paolo Museum of Art, 2007
In just three minutes, three robbers raided Brazil’s Sao Paolo Museum of Art and walked out with $56 million worth of art. Taking advantage of low security on the upper floors of the museum, the criminals snatched up Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de Suzanne Bloch (1904, worth $50 million, pictured) and Candido Portinari’s O Lavrador De Cafe (1939, worth $6 million). Police found the paintings after arresting two of the culprits. The art works were escorted back to the museum by 100 police officers.
The Collection of Stephane Breitwieser
Money isn’t the only motive for art theft. Traveling through Europe, working as a waiter, Stephane Breitwieser made a habit of stealing paintings and other cultural artifacts from museums, amassing a personal collection worth at least $1.4 billion. In 2001, Breitwieser was caught stealing a bugle in Switzerland, and he ended up confessing to everything. The art was amassed in his bedroom, but not all could be saved; Breitwieser’s mother, either out of love or anger, destroyed some of the incriminating evidence. Go figure, Breitweiser wrote an autobiography in 2006.
The Duchess of Devonshire, 1876
Adam Worth, a master criminal with a history of robbing banks and forging documents, stole Thomas Gainsborough’s ” Duchess of Devonshire” to get the bail money needed to release his jailed brother. When the brother got out of prison on his own, Worth initially kept the painting, but later sold it for a ransom. He died a year later with little money to speak of. Fun Fact: Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels.
Emile Bührle Foundation, 2008
Forget the elaborate heists you see in movies; all it took to steal four masterworks from a private Zurich museum last year was three guys and some ski masks, one brandishing a pistol, in broad daylight to boot. It wasn’t the cleanest operation, but from what we can tell, no one’s been arrested. On the bright side, two of the paintings — Monet’s “Poppies near Vetheuil” (pictured) and van Gogh’s “Blossoming Chestnut Branches” — were later found in an unlocked parked car.
Jacob De Gheyn III
Rembrandt’s masterpiece holds the record for most thefts of a single piece of artwork. In 1981, it disappeared from Britain’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and was recovered months later. Two years after that, a burglar smashed the gallery’s skylight and descended through the roof to steal the painting, and it was found in a British army train station luggage rack in 1986. The painting has also mysteriously vanished twice, to be found in a graveyard and on a bicycle. Jacob just wants to be found, that’s all.
Frankfurt and the Tate Gallery, 1994
This one’s a douzy. To make a long story short, two thieves locked themselves in Frankfurt’s Kunsthalle Schirn and overpowered a security guard to steal three paintings, including J.M.W. Turner’s “Light and Colour” (pictured). The men were quickly found, but the paintings were not. What followed were shady dealings involving the Yugoslavian Mafia, Britain’s Tate Gallery, which owns the Turner paintings, and an insurance company. The gallery paid lots of money and got the paintings back, but insisted that they paid for “information” leading to the discovery of the paintings, and not a ransom.
The Scream and Madonna, 2004
Threatening Oslo’s Munch Museum staff with guns, two men ripped Edvard Munch’s The Scream (pictured) and Madonna from the walls and took off with the help of at least one more accomplice. Two years later, three men were found guilty and three more were acquitted. Fortunately, the paintings never left Norway, and they were recovered with much less damage then expected.
The Gardner Museum Theft, 1990
Said to be the largest ever U.S. museum theft, this case remains unsolved. To fool museum security, two men dressed as police officers, then tied up the men upon gaining access to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. The men then spent almost an hour and a half taking up to $300 million in artwork, including Vermeer’s “The Concert.” To date, there’ve been new theories and even Twitter crowdsourcing, but with no luck.
Last Judgment Triptych, 1473
In the earliest-referenced art theft you’ll find — at least without consulting ancient texts — a pious pirate looted a ship transporting Hans Melming’s “Last Judgment.” The painting was then given to the Gdansk cathedral in Poland and remains its property as negotiations to return the work never panned out. Gdansk treats Last Judgment as its own, lending it out on rare occasions but never returning it to Florence’s de’Medici chapel, for which the painting was originally commissioned.
Thanks for reading, Diggers, Stumblers, Redditers and otherwise. What’s your favorite theft from the list above? Let us know what you think about the list above in the comments. Otherwise, check out these other related features on the YouCrave network that you might enjoy: