The Greatest Art Heists of All Time

In all the years I have been contributing to this blog I have covered countless topics, from the most famous abstract artists in history to the great American Landscape Painters. I've stirred debate and posed hypothetical questions from Is Photography Art to What is Fine Art Photography and everything in between. Today, I decided to have a little fun and take a stroll down memory lane to explore the greatest art heists of all time.

Human beings have been artists since we still lived in caves and painted on cave walls. Yet, for as long as there have been artists, there have also been thieves. From daring escapades that could rival any Hollywood blockbuster to audacious thefts that have left museums and galleries stunned, the underworld of art heists is brimming with excitement and intrigue.

In this listicle, we’re taking a look at some of the most extraordinary instances where cunning minds and brazen tactics converge, resulting in the disappearance of some of the world’s most treasured artworks. These narratives of artful larceny, often filled with twists and turns, remind us that the allure of the artist’s masterpiece can drive individuals to the very boundaries of law and morality and sometimes beyond.

Art Thieves Hit Boston Museum (1990)

In the early hours of the morning on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, thieves gained access to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, overwhelmed the security guards, and walked away with several paintings collectively valued at approximately $500 million. To this day, the works are still missing, and detectives have little information about the possible perpetrators or the whereabouts of the artwork.

Mona Lisa Stolen from Louvre by Italian Handyman (1911)

An audacious Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia pulled off one of the most famous art heists in history when he stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. According to legend, Peruggia and two co-conspirators spent the night in a closet and then absconded with the painting by train, taking the painting back to Italy. While Peruggia was ultimately caught (and served only seven months of jail time), this act of thievery helped make the Mona Lisa one of the most easily recognizable paintings in the world.

‘Spider-Man’ Purloins Five Masterpieces from Paris Museum (2010)

Using a combination of acidic substances, incredible persistence, and sheer daring, Vjeran Tomic broke into Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in 2010, and made off with works by Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso. The theft was so smoothly executed, Tomic was given the nickname ‘Spider-Man’, although this did not spare him from being sentenced to eight years of imprisonment.

Impressionist Masterpieces Stolen from Paris Museum as Public Watches (1985)

In perhaps one of the most brazen art heists ever committed, thieves (who purchased tickets to gain entry like the rest of the public) held nine guards and scores of visitors at gunpoint while several impressionist masterpieces were unceremoniously taken from the walls of Paris’s Musée Marmottan. Five years later, all of the works that were stolen were recovered and seven people were arrested in relation to the theft.

Amateurs Take 124 Beloved Artifacts from Mexican Archaeological Museum (1985)

Not all art heists are done by professionals, and in the mid-80s, two college dropouts with links to a sprawling crime ring stole 124 artifacts from the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City. Although they were amateurs, the thieves prepared immensely, having cased the museum over 50 times. Ultimately, however, all their preparatory efforts did not prevent them from being caught.

The Scream Stolen in Oslo During Winter Olympics (1994)

As if the drama portrayed in Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece wasn’t enough, The Scream was stolen from the National Museum in Oslo, Norway, during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The subsequent manhunt (and painting hunt) lasted nearly two years until The Scream was found in a hotel outside of Oslo and four men were convicted in connection with the robbery.

Lax Security Enables Thieves to Walk Away with Van Gogh Still-life in Giza (2010)

The only way thieves could have pulled off this heist was if the security systems in place failed. As the thieves’ luck would have it, none of the alarms at the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza, Egypt, were operating properly. Oddly enough, the painting in question – Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers – was stolen once before from the same museum in 1977 and recovered a decade later. Sadly, to this day, the painting (which has an estimated value of $55 million) is still missing.

A Benvenuto Cellini Masterpiece Stolen in Vienna by Security Professional (2003)

In 2003, a thief took Benvenuto Cellini’s golden salt cellar sculpture, The Saliera, from its encasement at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. While the thief’s proficiency with security systems helped him abscond with the work, it was not helpful in regards to obtaining ransom money or staying out of prison.

Priceless Caravaggio Cut from Its Frame in Italy (1969)

According to folk legend, it was a tempestuous evening in 1969 when thieves gained access to the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy, and stole Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. While no one knows for sure the fate of this famous painting, the search continues to this day.

The Scream Stolen (Again) in Broad Daylight at Munch Museum (2004)

Not to be outdone by other famous artworks, Munch’s The Scream was stolen again when thieves held Munch Museum guards at gunpoint in broad daylight in 2004. Thankfully, however, after two years the painting was recovered and six arrests were made. Today, art enthusiasts can visit Munch’s iconic work at The National Museum in Oslo.

Thieves Take $1.2 Billion in Jewelry from Famed Dresden Museum (2019)

One of the largest art heists – in terms of value stolen – occurred in under sixty seconds as thieves killed the power to the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden and made off with approximately $1.2 billion in precious jewels. While a handful of arrests have been made in connection with the heist, many of the jewels are still missing, and it’s believed that the thieves had been attempting to sell their plunder on the dark web.

Elaborate Stockholm Heist Sets Off International Chase (2000)

At the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden, armed thieves utilized a convoluted array of distractions to gain access to the museum and abscond with three works by Rembrandt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Just one year later, police were able to recover one of the stolen Renoirs while conducting an unrelated drug raid. Then, four years later, while probing a Bulgarian crime ring, international law enforcement prevented the sale of the Rembrandt and made four arrests related to the heist.

Two Early Van Goghs Stolen from Amsterdam Museum (2002)

In 2002, thieves broke into the famous Van Gogh Museum with a 15-foot ladder. The fate of the stolen paintings remained a mystery until 2016 when Italian authorities found them in a farmhouse located near Castellammare di Stabia. Ultimately, police were able to arrest several traffickers in relation to this specific heist.

18 Paintings Stolen in Canada’s Largest Art Heist (1972)

In the early hours of the morning, thieves gained entrance to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by way of a skylight. They bound and gaged three security guards and quickly left with dozens of jewelry objects and eighteen paintings worth around $2 million in 1972. Since then, none of the jewels, paintings, or perpetrators have ever been found.

A Van Gogh Goes Missing at Dutch Museum Shuttered by Covid (2020)

While most of the world shuttered its doors during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, art thieves were taking advantage of the empty museums. At the Museum Singer Laren in the Netherlands, a thief stole The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring after breaking into the museum with a sledgehammer. To this day, the painting has not been recovered.

The Impact of Crime on The Global Art World

In retrospect, these art heists have left an indelible mark on the global art world. These instances serve as stark reminders that the realm of art and crime often intertwine, and even precious masterpieces can disappear into the shadows without a trace.

Posted in Art History.