6 Famous Art Heists You Should Know About

by | Jun 11, 2024

Famous Art Heists

We’ve all heard stories of priceless works by the likes of Picasso and Rembrandt “going missing” from a museum. “Artnapping,” as it’s sometimes called, is certainly nothing new. Artwork can easily be worth millions of dollars. A stolen piece may be a hush-hush addition to a private collection, or it might simply be a trophy for a bold thief. Throughout modern art theft history, these are six of the most famous art heists on record—along with the outcome of the crime.

The Mona Lisa Loses Her Smile

The Mona Lisa

The most famous painting of all time became the most famous stolen artwork of all time when the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre in 1911. Mind you, this piece dates back to 1513. And it’s one of the most recognizable pieces of art even among those who don’t consider themselves aficionados. Translation? She has had a big target on her enigmatic half-smile for many centuries.

In this case, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman who had previously worked at the Louvre, hid inside the museum overnight. The following morning, he took the painting from its protective glass case, tucked it under his clothing, and walked out. Peruggia’s motivations were not financial; he hoped to return the Mona Lisa to Italy.

When a painter came to study the painting, he discovered its absence. At first, no one panicked, thinking the painting had been taken for photography, which happened frequently. However, when they realized that was not the case, the Louvre closed its doors for a week-long investigation. News quickly spread around the world of the missing portrait.

Case solved: It wasn’t until two years later—when Peruggia contacted an art dealer claiming he had the Mona Lisa and wanted to return it—that the Mona Lisa surfaced. The dealer verified the painting’s authenticity, and it returned to its rightful spot at the Louvre. Today, it’s worth $860 million.

A Massive Art Theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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Fast forward to 1990. Two men dressed as police officers entered a museum, saying they were responding to a disturbance. The institution in question was the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston, a private home-turned-museum that houses an extensive artwork collection.

The twist, of course, is that the uniformed officers weren’t officers at all. They were thieves.

Once inside, they overpowered and handcuffed the museum guards. They proceeded to steal 13 pieces of art, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and others. All told, the stolen pieces were worth more than $500 million. It was the single largest case of property theft in the world.

Case unsolved: Despite an extensive investigation by the FBI and the museum, the whereabouts of those stolen pieces remain unknown. Even today, there is a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the art. As far as famous art heists go, this is probably the winner.

A Van Gogh Goes Missing During the Pandemic

Van Gogh in Face Mask

In March 2020, when museum shutdowns were commonplace worldwide, a Netherlands museum shuttered its doors. In an ironic twist, thieves broke into the museum during the early morning hours of March 30—Van Gogh’s birthday. After smashing through a glass door, they stole a painting titled The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring. It’s valued at $6.9 million.

The theft attracted considerable media attention to no avail. Until a year later, that is. That’s when renowned Dutch art detective Arthur Brand announced he had “proof of life” photos of the stolen painting. Despite this lead, the piece didn’t surface immediately, and the investigation continued. Still, Brand was on the case.

Case solved: Finally, in September 2023, the chase ended. With all the guilty parties already behind bars and the painting exchanging hands, a man unrelated to the theft contacted Brand about turning it in. The hand-off was just as picturesque as you’d hope for—a covert meeting outside Brand’s apartment with a multi-million dollar painting tucked into an IKEA bag.

The “Takeaway Rembrandt”

Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III

In 2006, Guinness World Records awarded Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn IIIA the title of Most Stolen Painting. This work, also known as the “Takeaway Rembrandt,” earned its nickname after being stolen four times across five decades. Its small size likely contributes to how often it has been the subject of famous art heists—the painting is barely larger than a standard sheet of copy paper.

All four thefts were from the same location: the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. The first theft occurred in 1966, with forthcoming thefts occurring in 1973, 1981, and 1983.

Case solved: In all instances, the artwork was recovered. Fortunately, the museum has stepped up its security measures as a result of this piece’s theft history. Good thing, as this piece is valued at $13 million.

But actually: Despite a fun nickname and world record, Rembrandt’s tiny painting isn’t the most frequently stolen artwork throughout history. That dubious claim to fame belongs to Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which has had panels stolen six times.

The Scream Goes Silent

The Scream

Edvard Munch’s The ScreamA has had its share of thefts as well. On February 12, 1994, thieves broke through a window of Norway’s National Gallery, cut a wire holding the painting to the wall, and left a note that said, “Thanks for the poor security.” The Norwegian government received a ransom note for $1 million. It declined to pay without proof of the note’s legitimacy. Fortunately, the painting was recovered three months later during a sting operation.

Tragedy struck again a decade later. Two masked robbers entered the Munch Museum and held tourists and employees at gunpoint. They tore down another version of The Scream as well as Munch’s painting The Madonna.

Case solved: Police tracked down the pieces—albeit with minor tears and water damage—and apprehended thieves in 2006. The Scream is valued at $135.2 million.

Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” Droop

Van Gogh Poppy Flowers

In August 2010, this painting by Vincent van Gogh went missing in broad daylight. The thieves used a box cutter to remove the painting from its frame. Interestingly, several of the museum’s video surveillance cameras and alarms were not functioning at the time of the theft.

Case unsolved: While Egyptian authorities initially announced the painting was recovered at Cairo’s airport, that statement was retracted and the painting remains missing. It was stolen one other time previously, in 1977, and recovered in 1987 in Kuwait. The piece is estimated to be worth $55 million today.

What Do Famous Art Heists Have In Common?

A common theme throughout these thefts is how surprisingly vulnerable these irreplaceable and priceless works of art are. Even some of the world’s most well-known paintings don’t have constant supervision. These crimes showcase the need for robust security protocols and systems.

It’s a shame Deep Sentinel’s commercial security cameras—backed by live professional guards—weren’t watching over the scene of these famous art thefts. The results could have been very different, with the art remaining in its rightful place and museum directors sleeping soundly at night.

After all, preventing crime is an art, too.

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