The Perfect Heist

Sarah Gow

The concept of the perfect heist is something out of a storybook, most would say. Breaking into a museum, bypassing security, actually stealing the artworks, and walking away with millions of dollars worth of priceless art without ever getting caught would be nearly impossible. Hollywood movies make it seem easy, but those who have actually tried have been, well, less than successful. But is it possible?

There are many factors that play into the making of a heist, and ultimately determine its success. What, exactly, did they steal? Why that specific piece? How did they steal it? When did they steal it, and did the time have any effect on the outcome? Where did they steal from? Why that specific museum?

The largest, and arguably the most successful art heist was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. On March 18th, early in the morning before the museum opened, the thieves, disguised as Boston police officers entered the museum, claiming they had a warrant for one of the security guards arrest. They lured him away from the alarm button on his desk, the only one in the building, which would alert the only other guard on duty of a problem. After locking both guards in the basement and duct taping them to the pipes, they proceeded to steal over $500 million worth of art, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet, none of which have ever been found.
The empty frames still hang in the museum, over twenty years later

In August of 2015, twenty five years later, security footage was released from the day before the theft. The footage shows a car pull up to the rear entrance of the museum, and an unauthorized visitor being let in by a guard, entering through the same doors the thieves used the next day. This whole occurrence happens at 12:49pm, almost exactly twenty four hours before the robbery occurred. It all seems very suspicious and the fact that this mystery person was let in by a security guard brings about the question: was this an inside job?

The award for fastest heist time would definitely have to go the theft at the Kunsthal Museum on October 16, 2012. The thieves were in and out of the museum in under three minutes. The museum had no live guards on duty, only a automated alarm system that was said to be state of the art. Seven works were stolen from the Triton Foundation, a private collection which was on public display for the first time. The works cost an estimated $24 million. The heist was lead by Radu Dogaru, along with six other accomplices, all from Romania. They were eventually caught and put on trial, facing 6-8 years in prison. Many of the pieces had been kept at Dogaru’s mother’s house, and in an attempt to protect her son from prosecution, she burned the artworks.
The seven works stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in 2012

Though Dogaru is now in jail, there have been rumors that he may be suing the museum. His claim is that the security was so awful that it made the heist too easy. According to him, the real crime wasn't the stolen art, it was the museum’s atrocious security. Because with security that bad, how can someone not rob them?
It’s unclear as to whether the case ever legitimately went to court, but needless to say, it stirred up quite a fuss with the press.

Brute force is always an option too. On December 22, 2000, three gunmen entered the Stockholm National Museum in broad daylight, during visiting hours, armed with submachine guns. They herded everyone into the lobby, holding them hostage. One gunman stayed in the lobby with the hostages, while the other two went and snatched the pieces from the galleries. They stole $31 million worth of art, including paintings by Renoir and Rembrandt. All the pieces they stole were relatively small and easy to carry. The museum is on the waterfront, so the gunmen escaped in a small boat, after two preset car bombs went off in front of the museum to distract the police. The whole operation was quite clearly professionally planned, knowing exactly which pieces to take and where they would be, with diversion tactics set up beforehand. Despite that, they were still caught. In May of 2001, ten people were arrested for the theft, though only one painting has ever been recovered.

A Young Parisian by Renoir, one of the three works stole from the Stockholm Museum in 2000

Heists aren't always planned by professionals though. On December 24, 1985, Carlos Perches Trevino and Ramon Sardina broke into the National Museum of Anthropology. Perches and Sardina were veterinary students at the time, and took six months to plan the theft. Over the course of those six months they visited the museum more than fifty times, examining the layout, security, etc. When it finally came time for the heist, Perches and Sardina crawled through an air conditioning vent that lead into the galleries. It took half an hour for them to clean out 124 pieces of Mayan and Aztec artifacts. All of the pieces were small and able to be packed into a suitcase that they dragged back through the air conditioning vent to escape. In the whole time that they were in the museum, they never ran into any of the eight guards on duty that night, all of whom were most likely a little intoxicated as they celebrated Christmas Eve. The theft wasn't even discovered until the next morning, when the guards switched at the end of their twelve hour shift.

One of the many Aztec artifacts stolen during the heist in 1985

Perches kept the suitcase full of priceless artifacts in his closet for the next year, while he waited for the buzz surrounding the theft to cool down so he could sell the pieces.
He moved to Acapulco, where he made friends with a drug trafficker, who he had commissioned to try to sell the artifacts. The drug trafficker got caught on one of his drug runs, which lead to the police to Perches. He and Sardina were arrested, and 111 out of the 124 artifacts were recovered.

Probably the most famous art heist was the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. Vincenzo Perugia, the mastermind behind the whole plan, also happened to be the man who designed the newly installed protective casing for the Mona Lisa and a few other works in the Louvre. He and three other Italian “handymen” slept overnight in an art supply closet, then after the museum had closed and the security guards had made their rounds, they snuck out, took the painting out of its protective casing, tucked it under a blanket, and ran out of the museum to catch the 7:47am train out of Paris from Quai d’Orsay Station. It took a full 28 hours for anyone at the Louvre to even notice the paintings absence, because up until that point, the Mona Lisa was not very famous. It was noticed by an artist who had often come to that particular gallery to sketch, and had felt
Mona_Lisa.jpglike something was missing. He questioned a security guard about the whereabouts of the painting, not too concerned because the museum had been taking different pieces out of the galleries to photograph them. The guards checked with the photographers to see if they had the Mona Lisa out, but obviously they didn't, and that’s when panic set it. News of the theft got out quickly, causing an international uproar. The media was all over the robbery, making headlines all across the globe. Over sixty detectives took the case, trying to figure out where in the world the painting could be. The French were very concerned, worried that American millionaires were buying up all the best art for their private collections. JP Morgan, an American financier and banker who controlled most of the country’s corporate financing during the late 1800s and early 1900s, was actually suspected of commissioning the theft, though those accusations were never proven. Pablo Picasso was also a suspect in the heist, but his association to the theft was never proven either.

In actuality, Perugia left France and went back to Italy, where he kept the Mona Lisa in a false bottom in the trunk of his car for over a year. He had every intention of selling the piece, but all the media coverage had made it too famous, so he waited a year for things to settle down. Eventually Perugia tried to sell to an art dealer in Florence, but ended up getting busted by the police.

All of these heist are successful, to a degree. They all accomplished the main goal: get the art out of the museum. But for most of them, the real problem was what happened after the art was out of the museum. Both Perugia and Perches tried selling their stolen art, which was their big mistake. It makes sense, why steal a multi million dollar painting if you can’t get the millions of dollars it’s worth? But trying to sell art that's plastered on the front page of newspapers across the globe isn’t easy. No one wants to risk getting caught trying to buy art with that much media and police attention, even in illegal markets.

Perugia had the right idea, going for a painting that (at the time) was not very well known. If not for the huge boom in media coverage of the theft, the piece most likely would have been easy to sell and never seen again. The problem with stealing Rembrandt’s, Picasso’s, Manet’s, etc., like in the Stockholm and Kunsthal Museum heists is the paintings are too recognizable. Regardless of whether you know that specific painting, it is still easy to tell who it was painted by. When dealing with big name artists like that, yes, the price of the piece will go up, but so does the risk of high media coverage.

Perches and Sardina also had good method. By stealing multiple small artifacts instead of just one large one, they were much easier to transport, and significantly harder to track down.

The fatal flaw, it seems, of most heists, is the need for attention. It’s a rookie mistake, trying to make the heist more memorable by going for the most valuable piece. That just draws more attention and increases the chance of getting caught.

The unfortunate thing about being a thief is no matter how elaborate and gaudy a heist you plan, if you intend on not getting caught, you can’t take credit for your work.

Disclaimer: I'm not encouraging anyone to rob a museum, just saying if you were to attempt a heist, this would be how I would go about it.

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