A Hundred Years of Heist

A haul from a museum in Rotterdam last month proves art heist is big business. looks back at the most notorious robberies of the last century, and sees why it may not be such a great business model after all

Art robbery has caught the imagination of many, including Hollywood, but famous works goes missing all too often in the real world too. Last month pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin and Freud were nabbed from a museum in Rotterdam. The art, stolen during the early hours of October 16th, included Freud’s Woman With Eyes Closed and Monet’s Waterloo Bridge. The haul is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of euros if sold legally at auction. The thief fortunately won’t have this luxury, but this doesn’t alter the fact that the theft is the biggest of its kind in the Netherlands since 1991. So what are the most notorious heists of the last century?

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 20th May, 2010
In 2010, five paintings were taken from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, with a total value of €100 million. After much investigation, the specialist unit of the French couldn’t work out why the alarm hadn’t sounded. Two of the five paintings stolen were Le pigeon aux petits pois by Pablo Picasso and La Pastorale by Henri Matisse. The president of the Association du Palais de Tokyo, who was also an auctioneer, unsurprisingly, had few kind words to say when commenting on the theft. “These five paintings are unsellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them.” Those imbeciles sadly didn’t hand over the works, but were caught the following year. Le Pigeon‘s location, however, remains a mystery.

Still missing: Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois

Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream)
Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur, affectionately known as The Scream, has been stolen and recovered twice within the space of ten years. On 22nd February 1994, the Oslo National Gallery staff awoke to find the painting missing and a brief note reading “Thanks for the poor security”. The painting was stolen on the same day as the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and the presence of the international media made the theft world news. Following the gallery’s refusal to pay a $1million ransom, a sting operation was organised with assistance from British police, which in 1996, proved successful. Four men were arrested, including a man who had been convicted of stealing Vampire, another of Munch’s works in 1988.

Ten years following the National Gallery break-in, The Scream fell victim to another theft whilst at home in the Munch Museum, Oslo. It was stolen in plain daylight by masked gunmen who got away with Munch’s Madonna, as well as The Scream. Three men were arrested in 2005 and later convicted, but the paintings remained unrecovered until August 2006. When the Norwegian police announced the recovery of the works, they refused to give details on the circumstances of the recovery. The paintings had both suffered damage, but it was “much less than feared”.

The Scream shortly before being auctioned at Sotheby's; photo credit: on point

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1990
The largest art theft in world history took place in March of 1990, when thirteen paintings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The thieves, disguised as Boston police officers, left the museum with, amongst others, three works by Rembrandt, five drawings by Degas and The Concert by Vermeer. Some experts value the stolen art work collectively at $500 million; this would give the crime the title of the largest single property theft in recorded history. Twelve years on and the works remain unrecovered. But get snooping – the gallery is still offering $5million for information.

Nativity with St. Francis and St. Laurence, Caravaggio
Stolen in 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Sicily, the seizure of this baroque masterpiece remains within the top 10 of the FBI’s top ten art crimes. The thieves go into the church in the middle of the night and allegedly removed the canvas from the frame by cutting it out. Nothing more was heard about the heist until 27 years later when Francesco Marino Mannoia, a mafia informant, confessed his involvement in the crime. Local Sicilians were horrified when Mannoia said that the painting was so badly damaged that the illegal collector, who had organised the heist, cried when it was delivered. Gaspare Spatuzzo, another informer who gave an account in 2009, declared that rats destroyed the painting while it was stored in a barn. Allegedly the damage was so bad that it was burned. If the painting was discovered to be something more than a heap of ashes, it would fetch $20 million.

Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael

Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, went missing during the Nazi plunder of Poland. Originally the painting had been housed at the Czartoryski Museum of Krakόw alongside Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Hans Frank, a friend of Hitler discovered the painting at a residence in Sieniawa, where it had been moved to for protection before the German invasion in 1939. In 1945, Frank was arrested for war crimes by the Americans and the Polish representative for Retrieval of Works of Art recovered several works which Frank had stolen. The Nazis also stole work by artists such as Degas, Van Gogh and Michelangelo. Portrait of a Young Man was eventually recovered, but not until this summer, in extremely clandestine circumstances. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had been found “in a bank vault in an undisclosed location”… A bit Da Vinci code for my liking.

Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
Undeniably, the most famous theft occurred in 1911, when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, was stolen from the Louvre. Louis Béroud, a painter, was shocked to discover that the painting was missing from its pegs. Pablo Picasso and his poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire were both called in for questioning over the case. Guillaume had once called for the Louvre to be “burnt down” (and this apparently put him under suspicion). For two years, the painting was assumed to be lost forever, until it was discovered to be in the possession of one Vincenzo Peruggia, who had kept the Mona Lisa in his apartment in Florence, before attempting to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Vincenzo was praised for his Italian patriotism and was made to serve a mere six months in prison for the crime. An interesting case of international law if ever there was one.

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