Five greatest art thefts
As the author of a forthcoming book about a fascinating art theft, I am sometimes asked to name the most impressive or important art heists ever pulled off. These thefts deprived the public of access to masterpieces—not something to celebrate—yet we can deplore the criminal acts while nevertheless admiring their audacity and creativity. With that disclaimer, here are five incredible art thefts in ascending order of greatness.
5) National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, 2000
Three masked thieves celebrated the new millennium by pillaging Sweden’s prestigious museum and making an impressive getaway. While one of the thieves menaced guards with a submachine gun, his partners seized a Rembrandt self-portrait and two paintings by Renoir. The thieves escaped via a motorboat waiting for them at the museum’s riverfront entrance while their confederates set off diversionary car bombs around Stockholm. Meanwhile, police called to the scene were slowed by nails scattered in the roadway. However, they eventually solved the case, which resulted in eight convictions and recovery of all three paintings.
4) National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, 1994
Six years earlier, also in Scandinavia, one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream disappeared from the National Gallery in Oslo. Two men apparently climbed a ladder, smashed through a window, removed the painting from the wall and, for good measure, left behind a taunting note: “Thanks for the poor security.” But law enforcement laughed last, using an undercover operation to recover the painting just three months later and capture the thieves. Oddly, this theft had a sequel. In 2004, masked armed men broke into the Munch Museum in Oslo and stole two famous works by Munch: another version of The Scream and Madonna. The sequel, too, had a happy ending: the thieves were caught and the paintings recovered just two years later.
3) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, 1990
In 1990, brazen and creative thieves stole art worth several hundred million dollars, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet, from the beloved museum in Boston. They gained entry after hours by dressing as police officers and claiming to be responding to a disturbance. Once inside, they handcuffed security guards and locked them in a cellar while treating themselves to various choice works of art. Notwithstanding an extensive investigation and the offer of a $5 million reward, these paintings remain unrecovered and the crime unsolved.
2) The Louvre, Paris, France,1911
As in the case of the Scream, a painting’s iconic status can lead to its theft. On rare occasions, the opposite happens: a theft leads to a painting’s iconic status. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa did not enjoy its exalted position in the public imagination until it disappeared from the Louvre in1911. This was an inside job, as Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of work one day accompanied by the girl with the cryptic smile. Peruggia escorted the Mona Lisa to Florence, where he foolishly thought he could sell her to an art gallery. He was captured and convicted, served a short sentence, and lived until 1925. His victim was returned to her home in Paris where she has enjoyed a longer and happy life in the public eye.
1) London National Gallery, United Kingdom, 1961
Fifty years to the day of the theft of the Mona Lisa, Britain experienced the only theft in the history of London’s National Gallery. Three weeks earlier, the Gallery had put Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington on exhibition (after the British government shelled out a substantial sum to keep the painting in England, following its purchase at auction by an American collector). Its disappearance triggered a four-year game of cat and mouse between the authorities and a man who sent them off-the-wall ransom notes. In 1965, the painting was returned anonymously and two months later an eccentric 61-year-old man confessed to the theft. Kempton Bunton was acquitted of stealing the painting but convicted of stealing the frame (!) and served a short prison term. It turns out he was innocent, though this was only discovered a half century later!
Alan Hirsch, an art historian and attorney, is Instructor in the Humanities at Williams College.