art heists

The most brazen art heists in history

Inside the real-life heists so outlandish they could have been lifted from the silver screen

Art heists have always captivated the collective imagination. Whether it’s the mystery of what happened to the priceless works that were never found or the sheer outlandishness of the thieves bold enough to steal them, art heists have provided plenty of fodder for literature and cinema over the years.

But, if your art heist knowledge only extends as far as The Thomas Crown Affair, there are plenty of real-life heists featuring characters slicker and smarter than Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan combined. Read on…

The Van Gogh in the loo (2003)

Tahitian Landscape by Paul Gauguin

A day after their mysterious disappearance in April 2003, three paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin (pictured) valued at an estimated $8 million, were discovered in a disused public toilet near the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

Police investigating the theft received an anonymous tip that led them to find the missing masterpieces stuffed into a cardboard tube. They were accompanied by a soggy note that read: “the intention was NOT to steal, only to highlight the woeful security.” The thieves, or activists, have never been found.

The great Swedish speedboat heist (2000)

In December 2000, thieves armed with submachine guns stormed Sweden’s National Museum in Stockholm in broad daylight and took the security guards hostage. The gang then snatched a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two small paintings by Renoir off the walls, before escaping in a speedboat down the adjoining canal.

As they did, two parked cars near the museum suddenly burst into flames, and spikes were dropped across nearby roads to stop any pursuit by car. The paintings, valued collectively at $45 million, were discovered one-by-one in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Los Angeles over the next decade. The thieves have never been caught.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner thefts (1990)

Perhaps the most significant art theft in history, two thieves disguised as police officers walked into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the early hours one morning. Claiming they were responding to a reported disturbance, they promptly handcuffed the security guards and locked them in the basement before making off with a mammoth haul valued at some $500 million.

The loot, which included works by Vermeer, Manet and Rembrandt, has never been recovered and it’s thought that the thieves themselves have since been murdered. A $10 million reward for information proved fruitless and empty frames hang in the gallery in homage to the missing works.

The Mona Lisa vanishes from the Louvre (1911)

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

On 21 August 1911, an ex-employee of the Louvre snuck in to the museum in the early morning and removed Da Vinci’s masterpiece from its frame, carrying it out underneath his coat. Within hours, more than 60 detectives had been assigned to the case, which quickly turned the portrait from a fairly ordinary artefact to the most famous painting in the world.

Everyone from Pablo Picasso to J.P Morgan was accused of the crime in the two years that followed, before the actual thief (handyman Vincenzo Perugia who had fitted the original security glass) was arrested. Claiming he was a patriot returning the painting to its native Italy, Perugia got just eight months in jail.

The many lives of the Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

The Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece

The most stolen artwork of all time, however, remains the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Flemish masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432. The 12 panels of the altarpiece have been stolen seven times, most notably at the hands of Nazi soldiers who pinched them from the south of France where they had been sent for safeguarding.

The “Monuments Men”, a special branch of the Allied Army founded in 1943, was deployed to retrieve the artefacts (and immortalised on film by George Clooney). Experts painted a replica in the cathedral that remains in place today — though its quality has led some art critics to claim that it is the original hiding in plain sight.

Who do you call when a masterpiece gets stolen? Art detective Arthur Brand of course…

Further Reading