7 of the Most Notorious Art Heists in History | History Hit

7 of the Most Notorious Art Heists in History

Celeste Neill

19 Aug 2021
Germans display Botticelli’s masterpiece, Camilla and the Centaur, from the Uffizi.
Image Credit: National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. / Public Domain

Art heists have always had a big impact when it comes to cultural history. Usually located in a jet set location, these stories come with an air of glamour, conjuring up visions of ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ type characters lurking around New York museums or ‘Ocean 11’ styled gangs on the run in Paris.

But the greatest art heists in history are even more fascinating than their fictional counterparts. These stories are filled with truly shadowy figures, sensational master plans, daring escapes and international espionage. Pieces of art that are ranked amongst the most expensive objects in the world have vanished forever or have taken years to track down.

There are numerous shocking historical heists, but these are 7 of the most outlandish tales of art theft that captivated the world.

1. The Ghent Altarpiece (1934)

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The most stolen artwork in history is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck Hubert and his brother in 1432. As well being nearly burned down by Calvinists, it has been stolen by Napoleon and then stolen repeatedly in the First and Second World War. It was the artwork that the Nazis wanted more than any other piece of art in the world, with Hitler keen for it to be the centrepiece to a new museum he planned.

In 1934, one of its 12 panels was stolen from the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. Shortly after it was stolen, the Bishop of Ghent received a ransom note for one million Belgian francs, but no ransom was paid and the painting was never recovered.

Some months later a Belgium stockbroker called Arsène Goedertier suddenly proclaimed on his deathbed that he alone knew the mysterious whereabouts of the painting. But all that was found was a note in his bedside cabinet drawer claiming that the panel “can not be taken away without arousing the attention of the public.” and he took the secret to his grave.

The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.

Image Credit: Public Domain

2. Isabella Stewart Gardner thefts (1990)

Perhaps the most audacious art heist in history was also the most expensive, inspiring the recent documentary series ‘This Is a Robbery’. Just after 1am on 17 March 1990, two men posing as police conned their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a lavish mansion-turned-museum.

After dramatically declaring what became an infamous phrase, ‘”Gentleman, this is a robbery,” the thieves promptly tied up the security guards and proceeded to cut priceless works of art out of their frames and load them up into their somewhat scruffy grey hatchback parked outside. Just over an hour later, the thieves speed off with some 13 artworks in the car boot, valued at staggering half a billion dollars, including a Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Dega.

30 years on, the art have never been found. It’s rumoured that the thieves themselves have since been murdered. To this day the empty frames are still hanging in the Gardner Museum waiting for the paintings to be returned.

An empty frame remains at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ was once displayed – the only known seascape by Rembrandt.

Image Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Public Domain

3. Canada’s largest art heist (1972)

Not only is this largest art theft in Canada but also it’s the largest theft in Canadian history and remains one of the world’s greatest unsolved art thefts. Just after midnight on 4 September 1972, thieves entered the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through by breaking in through a rooftop skylight and then sliding down a rope. They then bound and gagged the guards and promptly made of with 39 jewellery objects and 18 paintings, including ones by Delacroix, Rubens, and Rembrandt. It had taken them just 30 minutes.

The artworks were estimated at that time to be worth some $2 million, however in recent years the stolen goods have since been valued at around $20 million. A few items were later returned, after some ransom negotiations but the rest of the stolen goods has never been seen since.

In 2003, a local newspaper suggested that the Montreal mafia may have been involved and experts fear most of the paintings will have been destroyed, as they are too well-known to be sold.

4. The Swedish Speedboat heist (2000)

This dramatic theft took place in December 2000 and could easily have been the plot of a James Bond film. A gang of thieves, heavily armed with submachine guns, stormed Sweden’s National Museum in Stockholm, took the security guards hostage and stole a Rembrandt and two paintings by Renoir worth some $45 million. The gang then escaped in a speedboat moored in the waterway just outside of the museum.

Just before the robbery, police had received reports about two cars on fire near by, which are thought to have been a distraction set up by the thieves, who also had thrown nails in front of the museum to hinder the police further.

In 2001 the police received a ransom demand from a lawyer acting on behalf of the thieves but they refused to pay and shortly after the masterminds of the scheme, and several other accomplices were arrested. Some months later the police did recover one of the Renoir paintings by accident during another criminal investigation.

5. The Vincent Van Gogh toilet scandal ( 2003)

On 23 April 2003 Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery discovered that 3 of its most famous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin were missing.

Valued at an estimated $8 million, the heist was somewhat comically dubbed “the Loo-vre” in the media, due to the fact that the missing paintings were found just days later in a local public toilet.

In the corner of the graffiti-adorned, damp building, the police found the paintings rolled up in a soggy cardboard tube. Alongside it was a note from the thieves stating that: “We did not intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security.” The paintings were slightly damaged but soon were returned to the gallery walls. The thieves have never been found.

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6. Stealing The Scream (1994 and 2004)

Perhaps one of the most iconic artworks in history, The Scream, which has four versions, was painted by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1893 and has been stolen twice in the last 20 years.

On 12 February 1994, one version was taken from the National Gallery in Oslo, on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Some months later it was recovered in May, after an extensive sting operation that involved both the British police and the Getty Museum, leading to 4 men being arrested in 1996.

This included the infamous art thief, Paal Enger, who was sentenced to six-and-a-half-years in prison, but managed to escape in 1999, and was captured some days later disguised in a blond wig and dark sunglasses, on the run to Copenhagen.

In 2004 a different version of The Scream was taken from the Munch Museum in Oslo. As tourists admired the various masterpieces, the masked thieves held guards at gunpoint, grabbed the painting and then made their getaway in a car parked nearby. A number of men were arrested and charged with the theft but the painting remained missing until 2006 when the police recovered it.

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1913)

Image Credit: classicpaintings / Alamy Stock Photo

7. The Mona Lisa goes missing (1911)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the world’s most iconic images and a star attraction for millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris.

But on 21 August 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an odd-job man working at the Louvre, removed the painting from its frame, and walked out of the museum with the painting hid under his clothes. Peruggia, who was Italian, was determined to return da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Italy. He mistakenly believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon, and felt he was doing his patriotic duty by returning to Italy.

The theft was only noticed a day later, when a visitor asked a guard where the painting was. The Louvre was closed immediately to begin an investigation, the French borders were closed and a hefty reward was offered to anyone who found the Mona Lisa. The saga quickly became a global media sensation.

2 years later Peruggia attempted to sell the painting to a gallery in Florence but was persuaded to leave it for examination and promptly arrested later that day.

The Mona Lisa in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

Image Credit: The Telegraph (1913) / Public Domain

Celeste Neill