Art Heists

Michelle Tebolt

When people think of art, many times the first thing that comes to mind is the ability to express oneself through creativity and imagination. However, art also has the prevailing reputation of only being appreciated by people of wealth and intellect, especially during art periods such as the Renaissance and Impressionism. The monetary value of these works is staggering, especially well known works and artists. Paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Klimt, and Picasso, are worth over 100 million dollars. These extravagant figures are common knowledge, and desperate times call for desperate measures; some people will do anything, such as stealing invaluable artwork. The reasons behind art thefts vary for each event. Sometimes the thief steals the work solely for the money, but other times the crook may be an art fanatic who wants to enjoy the art in his or her own home. More and more frequently art thieves are being caught and punished due to the advances in technology. Modern technology allows authorities to identify burglars, and well known masterpieces are difficult to smuggle to places and people because they are so easily identifiable. Despite this increased risk, art heists continue to occur today and have actually become increasingly successful. The recovery rate for stolen art works is only 1.5 percent globally. Art heists have always captured the public's attention, and today's media frequently romanticizes art heists, portraying them as exciting, dangerous, and classy; art thieves in movies and books aren't seen as the lowly street criminal, but rather as high class master villains. It needs to be remembered that these villains are stealing some of the most valuable treasures from the world and are keeping its worth for themselves.

1911 – LoMona_Lisa.jpguvre – Paris, France
– Vincenzo Perrugia– Caught & Apprehended
  • Mona Lisa

Perhaps one of the most well known art heists in world history is the theft of the Mona Lisa. The Louvre had just installed glass panes in front of their more valuable art works for security reasons and museum security was not expecting someone to take one of the protected paintings. The painting was taken between seven and eight in the morning on a Monday when the Louvre was closed for cleaning, but no one noticed until the next day. The following morning, a regular museum visitor noticed that there was a blank space where the Mona Lisa was supposed to be. He notified the guards, who assumed it had been taken to the photographers. After checking with the photographer, the museum staff finally realized the painting was missing. The museum was closed and 60 investigators searched for the art work. They discovered the glass pane that had covered the painting in a stairway, but after that the trail went cold. Back in 1911, there weren't any security cameras to check and the thief remained unknown. Speculation began about the crook's identity and theories on what he did with the art continued for months. Finally, two years later, there was a breakthrough; late 1913, a man contacted Alfredo Geri, an Italian antique dealer, with the intention of selling him the authentic Mona Lisa. Geri notified the authorities. With police backup, Geri met with the mysterious man. When the work the man had was identified as the authentic Mona Lisa, the police moved in and the thief was apprehended. Vincenzo Perrugia was an extreme Italian nationalist who believed the Mona Lisa deserved to be displayed in Italy rather than France. The work was returned to the Louvre in 1913 with a newfound popularity. Before 1911, the Mona Lisa was seen to be as important as any other of Leonardo DaVinci's paintings. However, the theft of the artwork brought it to the public's attention and caused its widespread idolization.

1990 – The Isabella Gardner Museum – Boston Massachusetts, USA
– Still Missing & Unknown ($200 – $300 million)
  • The Concert – Vermeer (Most expensive art stolen in the world)
  • A Lady and Gentleman in Black – Rembrandt
  • The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt (his only seascape)
  • Self-Portrait – Rembrandt
  • Landscape with the Obelisk – Govaert Flinck
  • Chez Tortoni- Manet
  • La Sortie de Pesage – Degas
  • Cortege aux Environs de Florence – Degas
  • Program for an artistic soiree 1 & 2 – Degas
  • Three Mounted Jockeys – Degas
  • An ancient Chinese ku from the Shang Dynasty
  • A finial in the shape of an eagle from a Napoleonic Flag

The greatest Art Heist in history occurred in Boston Massachusetts just after Saint Patrick's Day. Two men entered the museum disguised as police officers, wearing what were probably fake mustaches. They told the inexperienced security guard that they had a warrant out for his arrest and commanded him to call the other guard down to the desk. Once both guards were present, the thieves handcuffed them and tied them to piping in the basement. The thieves then spent a little over an hour stealing valuable art pieces, including “The Concert” by Vermeer, the most expensive artwork ever stolen, and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt's only seascape. At one point, an alarm went off, but the thieves managed to silence it before it notified the authorities. As they left the museum, the crooks told the guards that they would be
Vermeer_The_concert.JPG“hearing from them”, but no one would ever hear from them again. The next morning, the day guards came to relieve the night guards and discovered the theft and the authorities were notified. The fact that the thieves slashed the paintings from their frames led the police to believe that the crooks were amateurs. This theory soon became accepted as fact as time passed and the criminals still did not make contact. Perhaps they had not realized the extent of their crime, and once the true value of the artworks they had taken was understood, they went into hiding. A common problem for art thieves is selling the art they stole. As the works are so well known, many art enthusiasts know they are stolen. Many times, stolen works of art resurface as unsuspecting buyers recognize them. However, in the 24 years they have been missing, none of the works taken from the Isabella Gardner Museum has ever resurfaced. As motivation, the museum has offered a five million dollar reward for any information leading to the art works. The FBI is still investigating this case, and in 2013, the Bureau claimed they had made a breakthrough and knew who had stolen the art, but no further information has been released to the public, and the art is still missing. Both "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and "The Concert" remain some of the most famous stolen artworks today.

2002 - Van Gogh Museum - Amsterdam
– Octave Durham (The Monkey) & Henk Bieslijn - Caught, but Art Never Found ($20 million)
  • View at the Sea of Scheveningen
  • Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen

Not all thieves get away with their crimes. In 2002, two men broke into the Von Gogh Museum and took two paintings. They used a ladder to climb up to a window, smashed the glass with a cloth around their hands, and escaped by sliding
f_0004.jpgdown a rope. Although an alarm went off alerting police of the break in, the police's response was too slow to catch the criminals. Fortunately, the thieves left behind an extensive amount of evidence. Authorities found the cloth, rope, and ladder used to break in as well as the mens' hats. A year later, the police tracked down the two criminals, Octave Durham and Henk Bieslijn. Octave Durham was already known as an international art thief and was nicknamed "The Monkey". Him and his accomplice, Henk Bieslijn, denied stealing the art, but both of their DNA was found in the hats they had left behind. Both men were convicted and received four years in prison. However, the two paintings were never recovered and neither criminal has confessed to their location. Perhaps they had already sold the works to an underground buyer. It's also possible that the thieves kept the paintings. Dutch law allows stolen work to become the property of the thief after 30 years of its theft. Durham and Henk might use this loophole to their advantage, serve their time, and keep the art hidden for 30 years until they can legally claim it as their own. This law attracts many art thieves to the Netherlands who view the country as a sanctuary for their stolen goods.


2010 - Paris Museum of Modern Art – Paris, France
– Solo Thief - Still Missing & Unknown ($123 million)
  • Olive Tree Near Staque – Braque
  • Woman With a Fan – Armedeo Modigliani
  • Still Life with Chandeleirs – Leger
  • Le Pigeon auz Petits Pois – Picasso
  • La Pastorale - Matisse

In contrast to the former crooks who were easily caught, the thief who broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010 was meticulous and careful. He managed to break a window, and enter the building without setting off the alarm system. He moved around the museum quickly and quietly, removing five of the most valuable paintings from their frames without cutting or damaging the art. The Paris deputy mayor in charge of culture, Christophe Girard, said “It seems as if they (the thief) knew exactly what they were looking for and knew the value of each painting. There were two paintings by Modigliani hung next to each other and they took the more expensive.” None of the three security guards who were on duty that evening noticed anything amiss.
bg.jpgWhen security checked the surveillance videos after the theft, they found footage of a single masked intruder stealing the art. It was also discovered that the padlock on a grille had been broken. The museum was closed for a time after the robbery. Controversies arose regarding the building's security flaws. Rumors arose that the alarm system had been broken for some time and the museum had neglected to fix it, but this was never proven. No further evidence of the crime was found and the identity of the thief remains unknown. None of the five artworks has resurfaced and the authorities are still looking for possible leads.