By: Kim Ho
Neal Caffrey: Art thief from the tv show White Collar
Neal Caffrey: Art thief from the tv show White Collar

Art thieves in the movies are always portrayed in very sophisticated and elegant ways: dressed in expensive clothing, acrobatically able to weave their way through laser sensors, quickly disable the security alarms and cameras, steal the most expensive piece of art in the coolest way possible, and escape the museum with ease, never to be found again. And when they’re out, their hair still looks amazing! But back in reality, art thieves are not like that at all, they are wearing comfortable clothes, they would break into a museum in crude ways (sledge hammer, screwdriver, and/or guns), then escape only to be caught by the police later on.

But what happens after a person steals a piece or multiple pieces of art? Referring back to the art thieves on t.v., they usually would have a millionaire buyer already lined up waiting at a loading dock somewhere holding bags full of cash. Then the art thief would sell them the painting, take the money and move to some island off the grid to live out the rest of their life on a beach sipping a tropical drink with a little paper umbrella in it. Back to reality once more, the art thieves who stole the priceless paintings are hiding those pieces in their basement or a storage locker until they could find a buyer willing to pay them stacks of cash for a stolen piece from a crook who is on the FBI’s radar. In the real world, selling a stolen piece of art is really hard to do especially now with the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) which is a database of stolen art and cultural property. (7) The stolen pieces would be submitted for entry to the NSAF by law enforcement agencies here in the U.S. and abroad. The stolen pieces will stay on the database until it is found which makes it so hard for thieves to sell the pieces that they stole years or even decades ago.

Triton Collection Pieces Stolen

-Meyer de Haan’s “Self-Portrait” (1890)
-Gauguin’s “Girl in Front of Open Window” (1898)
-Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge, London” and “Charing Cross Bridge, London” (1901)
-Matisse’s “Reading Girl in White and Yellow” (1919)
-Picasso’s “Harlequin Head” (1971)
-Freud’s “Woman With Eyes Closed” (2002)

Space where a Matisse, was stolen from the Rotterdam Museum
Space where a Matisse, was stolen from the Rotterdam Museum

In October 2012, Romanians Radu Dogaru, Eugen Darie, and other Romanians were at the time already involved in other criminal acts: prostitution and selling stolen watches. Dogaru, the leader of the group wanted to try new things and steal “great, old art objects” to sell on the black market. They decided that the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, a modern gallery exhibiting 250 works from the Triton Collection that belonged to the Cordias, a wealthy Dutch shipping family, was a good start to their series of art heists. Their main objective was to look out for works that were done by famous artists and were small enough to be carried in a knapsack. In the middle of the night, Dogaru and a man that was a part of his crew named Adrian Procop broke into the museum through an emergency door with a pair of pliers. They encountered no security guards, the pieces were fixed to the walls with wires, the works weren’t individually connected to the alarm system, and the security cameras didn’t cover the door where Dogaru and Procop came in through. (7) The police came moments too late to find seven pieces of the Triton Collection gone. It was an easy heist for Dogaru and his partners to pull off but what they didn’t realize was that the pieces would be extremely hard to sell.

First of all, black market value of pieces of art is usually around 7 to 10% (1) of their actual worth. Secondly, Dogaru stole pieces made by really famous artists, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud and Jacob Meyer de Haan, the news of their missing pieces would have been all over the press and those pieces would have been put in the NSAF database, making it extremely hard to sell if everyone knew that they were stolen. Which was why when Mariana Dragu, an expert from the Romanian National Art Museum, was hired to authenticate two of the art works for an art dealer and found that they were actually genuine, she figured that they must have been stolen and reported to the police which opened up an investigation of Dragu and his partners. Luckily, Dogaru was tipped off and was a no show to the meeting with the art dealer. Nonetheless, in late January of 2013, Dogaru and Darie were arrested while Procop is still at large.

Mona Lisa Theft

Empty space where the Mona Lisa was hung in the Louvre
Empty space where the Mona Lisa was hung in the Louvre

Vincenzo Peruggia was the Italian man who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911. The Louvre hired Peruggia
to install protective glass cases for some of their pieces, including the Mona Lisa. Peruggia stole the piece by hiding in a closet until after closing hours, he then carried the piece in its frame and the protective glass that he installed himself into a stairway and slid Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous piece, although it was not famous at this point in time, out of its protective glass casing and his in under his smock and walked toward the door which he found to be locked. That didn’t stop him though, because he got a janitor to unlock it for him. Before the Mona Lisa was stolen, it wasn’t very famous at all but after the news of the theft broke out, it became one of the most famous pieces in history. Because of this, the Mona Lisa was discovered stolen when an artist intended to use the Mona Lisa as his muse noticed that it was missing and asked a security guard as to its whereabouts. The guard merely responded with a shrug and a assumed that it had been removed to be photographed. When he checked the photography studio, it wasn’t there, and the panic began. Conspiracies about who could have possibly hired a theft to steal the Mona Lisa for them flooded the news. Rich American and banking tycoon J.P. Morgan was at the forefront of these conspiracies, since he had a habit of collecting things and went on many shopping prees in Europe. He, however, denied being the mastermind behind the theft of the Mona Lisa. No one ever figured out who was the mastermind until 1932, 21 years afters the piece was stolen.

Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa
Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa
What you may not have known is that a con man named Eduardo, who went under the alias Marques de Valfierno, hired Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum, but why hire someone to steal it for you if you can’t even sell it or can you? In 1932, a journalist published an astounding confession from Valfierno after his death. (4) It turns out that Valfierno have been selling forgeries of famous paintings from the Louvre to wealthy Americans. Which was why Valfierno hired Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa, he wanted his buyers to have no doubt about the originality of their purchase. But Valfierno had no intention of selling the original piece; instead, he made six forgeries to sell to six different Americans after the news of the theft broke out. Valfierno also told his customers that the museum replaced the painting with a copy to “avoid scandal.” However during the trial after the painting was recovered in 1913, two years after it was stolen, Peruggia admitted to stealing the painting as a way to reclaim Italy’s cultural heritage but nothing about being hired by anyone to steal the Mona Lisa. Even after Valfierno’s confession made headlines, no one came out to say that they have purchased a forgery made by Valfierno, perhaps out of embarrassment that they bought a $100 forgery for millions of dollars.

This man had the most in common with art thieves and sellers in the movies out of anyone so far. Valfierno was one of the few who were able to successfully profit from a stolen painting. He brought his business to America instead of trying to sell it in Europe where news of a stolen piece from the Louvre was everywhere. He was also able to make more money by making six forgeries instead of just one to sell; he was a very smart businessman. He then convinced Peruggia to tell the authorities that he wasn’t hired by anyone to steal the Mona Lisa. Back then the NSAF wasn’t established yet which made it a even easier to steal a piece from one part of the world and sell it in another part. Valfierno had an ingenious plan that would make it possible for him to get rich, avoid prison, and receive the notoriety that he wanted.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

-Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and a Self Portrait (1634)
-Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660)
-Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638)
-Chinese vase or Ku
-Degas’s five works on paper
-Finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag
-Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880)
Empty frame that held a Rembrandt is still on display
Empty frame that held a Rembrandt is still on display

On March 18, 1990, two Boston policemen walked through the entrance of the museum claiming that they were responding to a call. One of the security guards on duty let them in and came from behind his desk where the security alarm was located after the two policemen said that they recognized him and have a warrant for his arrest. The guard also got the other guard on duty and they both were handcuffed to pipes in the basement 40 yards away from each other. As it turns out, the two policemen were crooks who wanted to steal and sell famous pieces of work from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They proceeded to steal 13 pieces. The following day the day guard came in for his shift to find the two night guards still handcuffed in the basement and notifies the art director and real police right away. The pieces were cut out of its frame which leads the authorities to believe whoever conducted this crime was a common crook with no knowledge of art whatsoever.

All of the pieces together have an estimated value of $500 million, making it the largest-value theft in history. It is still a mystery as to who were involved in this heist and the whereabouts of these amazing works of art. There was a $5 million reward to anyone who could give any information about where the 13 paintings are but they still have to be in good condition for that person to receive the reward. Today the FBI investigation is still going on, 17 years after its theft, however, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is now solely interested in getting the pieces back. They have raised the reward to $10 million in hopes that someone might speak up. (5) In August 2015, Peter Kowenhover, the FBI’s assistant special agent in Boston, settled the mystery as to why no one was ever charged with the heist: both of the suspects are dead. (6) He didn’t release their names to the public but after all of these years the mystery has been solved. The authorities also released footage from the security camera 24 hours before the heist as a way to appeal to the masses to give any information as to the whereabouts of the thirteen pieces that were stolen. Many cases of art thefts are similar to this one, a crook will steal a famous piece of art in hopes of making a fortune but end up realizing that they are stuck with it because no one will risk buying something that the world knew was stolen. We don’t have any more information about the suspects but the FBI is using what they know about the suspects to recover the stolen pieces. But maybe they were able to beat the odds and was able to sell the pieces. After the mystery as to who stole the artworks is no longer a mystery, another mystery emerges: where are the pieces now?

What can you do with stolen art?

There are unfortunately a lot of cases that remain unsolved either because the thief couldn’t find a buyer or in some rare cases, were able to sell the stolen artworks. According to Robert Wittman, leads the FBI Art Crime Team, thieves are better thieves than businessmen. They don’t think about a long term plan: who am I going to sell this piece to, where are we going to make the transaction, how much money should I get, where am I going to put all of that money, how do I make sure that I don’t get on the FBI’s radar, do I need to steal again, do I just want to get a new identity, and move somewhere off of the grid? Stealing art is also incredibly irrational, if you rob a bank, you have money to spend; if you steal a car, you can drive it; if you steal jewelry, you pawn it off; but if you steal a work of art you can’t even sell it. (2) There are ways to get the stolen pieces off of your hands; you can exchange it for weapons or drugs with other criminals. For example, a painting was sent over to Istanbul to take part in a heroin deal. Another was when four paintings were sent to Antwerp where a diamond dealer accepted it as collateral and gave the art thief a large amount of money in which he tried to create an offshore account in the Bahamas. Before the NSAF was created, banks would accept paintings as collateral giving criminals a credit line that were usually unattainable by those with an illegitimate income source. In certain European countries, the ambiguous legal jurisdiction makes it so that if a stolen artwork was recovered, it would take an extensive amount of time until they can get it back so usually they would have to negotiate a deal with the art thief. In the U.S. however, museums and art owners usually have a “we don’t negotiate with art terrorist” kind of mindset. This is both good and bad, the party the art was stolen from will either reclaim the piece in the distant future or never see it again. But this policy is a deterrent for an art thief to ever steal again or for a person who is planning to steal a piece.

Works Cited
"How Do You Make Money off Stolen Art?" Priceconomics, 21 Nov. 2013, (1)
Siemaszko, Corky. "Here’s Why Art Thieves Steal Paintings They Can’t Sell."
NBC News, 30 Sept. 2016,
Caesar, Ed. "What Is the Value of Stolen Art?" New York Times, 13 Nov. 2013,
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. "Stealing Mona Lisa." Vanity Fair, May
"Thirteen Works: Explore the Gardner's Stolen Art." Isabella Stewart Gardner
Museum, 2016,
"FBI Says Two Suspects Who Stole $500m in Art from Boston Museum Are Dead."
The Guardian, 7 Aug. 2015,
"Art Theft." FBI,