Art Heists, Art Thieves, and Famous Missing Masterpieces

Art Theft

Who can resist the allure of an art heist? The very phrase sounds both seductive and whimsical, the stuff of black comedy featuring characters in cat masks, trundling painting out of an elegant chateau while a cocktail party goes on downstairs.

In reality, art heists are the work of sociopathic criminals, often stealing from museums where master works of art are displayed for the public. Art thieves rob a country of its cultural heritage - a crime committed against the whole of society. The most infamous art heist of all - the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, plunged Paris into a state of mourning.

The Mona Lisa Was Once Stolen

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Art Theft is an Old Crime

The theft of art is an old crime. Archaeological investigation has revealed court records dating to Egypt's 20th Dynasty (around 1100 BC) in which workers were convicted of robbing tombs in the Valley of Kings. In another instance, the mayor of Western Thebes and several local officials were prosecuted for tomb robbery.

The theft of art is often controversial.  The removal of art, especially ancient objects taken from the county of origin by colonizers can be defined as theft.

In 1846, the Elgin Marbles were removed from Greece by Thomas Bruce and shipped to the British Museum with permission of the Ottoman Empire. The removal of that classic marble statuary that once stood in the Parthenon is disputed to this day. Who gave the Ottomans the right to dispose of Greece's national treasures?

More recently, the looting of the Baghdad Museum created a controversy that rocked the world. When Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the unsecured museum fell to looters who carried off 170,000 items. Or was it 2,000? Experts on the subject disagree. As war became imminent, art curators and museum professionals warned against the threat war might pose to the museum. The home of art and ancient artifacts of Mesopotamia, including the Sacred Vase of Warka, a 5,000 year old golden vase from the Biblical city Ur, the Museum of Baghdad was a treasure trove of some of the most historically significant objects of Western Civilization.

As art lovers and historians wailed across the globe, museum staffers claimed that most of the museums' missing objects had been removed or stored away for safekeeping. But storerooms were later found flooded. Accusations, excuses, explanations, and confusion ensued. Gill J. Stein of the University of Chicago believes that the theft was carefully crafted and planned ahead of time. Thieves knew what they were looking for and waited for the opportunity.

More recently, the imbraglio in Santa Cruz has art heist mavens enthralled. 19 items by 8 artists worth $80million were stolen from the rented house of Dr. Ralph Kennaugh and Benjamin Amadio on September 25, 2009. Or was it? An avalanche of strange questions pile up around the weird story. Why wasn't the art insured for what they were worth? Are one of the two men lying? Did the art even really exist?

Whatever your view, the world of the art heist is fascinating, filled with drama, mystery ,and beauty. The loss of masterpieces can devastate a community, even the world.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Art Heist = Big Money

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Rembrandt's Homer Contemplating the Bust of Homer for $2.3 million in 1961, the art world stood in shock. The price doubled the previous record and established a precedent. Suddenly, art was worth more than other traded commodities. After all, a masterpiece is irreplaceable and unique.Ever since, the financial appreciation of art has risen dramatically, encouraging theft.

In the past, art was purchased for beauty or the status conveyed by ownership. But the incredible sums paid for art had turned art collecting into investment. Art is often poorly secured. Paintings are easily portable.

Unfortunately, the criminals who steal from museums or take art from private collections are not art enthusiasts or knowledgeable about works of art and safe handling procedures. Canvases can be destroyed by clumsy hands. An old painting, when rolled, can crack or be damaged in transit or ruined by inappropriate storage.

Professional art thieves often steal lesser known works and later sneak the pieces back into circulation through unscrupulous dealers who sell to oblivious buyers.

When the Industrial Revolution created massive wealth in the late 19th century, the nouveau riche provided a source of income for art thieves. These wealthy, yet naïve art collectors wanted masterpieces, but did not fully understand the market, so created a market for savy crooks.

Art Theft and Art Forgery

At the Turn of the last century, Eduardo Valfierno commissioned art forge Yves Chaudron to paint several copies of the same Murello painting and sold the same piece over and over again to unsuspecting collectors. The marks were shown fake newspaper clippings of a Mexican art heist - the buyers believed they were purchasing stolen art! If, by chance, a buyer were to spot the real painting at the Mexican museum, Valfierno claimed the museum piece was the copy, faked to avoid embarrassment.

Chaudron operated an art forgery factory where he used paint formulas that the artists of the time he was forging used. He set up fans to quickly dry the varnish, creating cracks that simulated age. Dust blown onto the drying canvases made the painting appear old as well.

Art is powerful. It creates emotions in the viewer, and for some, a powerful desire to possess. Insured art creates a market for those seeking the reward. Insurance companies are interested in the return of the work more than prosecution of criminals, creating another market for stolen art - people who steal art for the reward offered by an insurance company.

Books About Art Heists

In the Museum of the Missing: the High Stakes of Art Crime, Simon Houpt takes the reader on a historic journey into the world of art theft. This comfortable, engaging read describes art heists throughout the ages from wartime thefts of Napoleonic times through the Nazi's looting of European art and the wartime souvenirs taken by soldiers during World War II. He introduces the reader to art recovery investigators, Interpol, and well known art thieves. He relates case studies including the amazing heist of a 2 ton bronze sculpture by Henry Moore and the looting of the Museum of Iraq. Over 25,000 pieces are listed along with beautiful photos of lost art.

Storm on the Sea of Gallilee

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The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser relates the story of the greatest art theft of all time. In 1090, two thieves, disguised as policemen, demanded entry into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. After tying up the guards, they made off with $500 million worth of masterpieces including Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer's The Concert.

When Boser interviewed Harold Smith, an art theft recovery detective who died shortly afterwards, Boser became obsessed with the hunt for the lost art. This is the story of his obsession, of the fascinating creator of the museum, of eccentric underworld characters, criminals, and the art detectives who attempted, but failed, to locate the Gardner art works.

The Concert by Vermeer

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The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art by Hector Feliciano is the story of the Nazi's insatiable lust for art. Art work confiscated from Jews were used in the Nazi's twisted attempt to promote culture. A lot of European art was destroyed when the Nazi's declared certain artistic trends to be degenerate and destroyed Avante Garde paintings. The fight over the Nazi plunder continues to this day, as the descendants of robbed and murdered Jews attempt to reclaim their lost heritage.

Vanished Smile : The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti recounts the August, 1911 heist of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris and the amazing events surrounding it. The disappearance of the most famous painting in the western world went unnoticed for 24 hours! Pablo Picasso was a suspect! After 2 years, the thief was caught. Vincenzo Purugia hid the Mona LIsa in his apartment in Florence Italy claiming that he planned to return it to its rightful home - Italy. He may have been encouraged by Eduardo Valfierno, the gentleman con man who planned to commission art forge Yves Chaudron to forge the Mona Lisa and sell fakes.

The Scream

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Famous Art Heists and Famous Art Thieves

  • Stephane Brutwieser aka the Art Collector clandestinely removed 238 works of art from museums and galleries throughout Europe in hopes of building his own art collection. When caught, it was discovered that his mother had purposefully destroyed 60 paintings, including works by Brughel and Watteau to protect her son by erasing incriminating evidence. In 2005, he was given a 26 month sentence in prison.
  • Edvard Munch's famous paiinting The Scream was stolen twice! Munch had created several versions of the famous painting. One, stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway was ransomed and recovered one year later. In 2004, another version of The Scream and Munch's Modonna were taken at gunpoint from the Munch Museum (also in Oslo)and recovered in 2006.
  • The Alfred Steiglitz Gallery lost 3 of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings in 1946. Years after the loss from her husband's gallery, the paintings were located by O'Keefe herself following a purchase made from the Princeton Gallery of Art in 1975 by a Manhatten gallery. When O'keefe sued to regain possetion of her works, she found that the statute of limitations had run out.
  • Beginning in the 1970s, John Questin Feller stole ceramic artifacts from museums, galleries, and other institutions that, he felt, did not fully appreciate their value. For 18 years, he robbed dozens of museums of over 100 pieces of art, subsequently donating them to other institutions in hope of having them displayed in a manner that he thought fit. Feller was made a trustee of the Peabody Essex Museum for his generosity but later resigned the commission when he was apprehended by police for art theft.
  • The first documented European art heist occurred in 1473, when 2 panels of an altarpiece by the Dutch painter Hans Memling was stolen by pirates while in transport from the Netherlands to Florence. The work was taken to Gdansk, Poland where it can be seen today at the National Museum, Gdansk.
  • In the spring of 2003, a woman walking down the sidewalk in New York City spotted a vividly colored canvas set out with the trash. she picked it up and later found that the painting by Rufino Tamayo had been stolen out of storage in Houston, Texas 20 years earlier. The painting was worth one million dollars.

Story of the Isabella Stewart Gallery Museum Heist

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Comments 40 comments

Hmrjmr1 profile image

Hmrjmr1 7 years ago from Georgia, USA

Very Interesting Delores Great Job! profile image 7 years ago from Saint Laurant de Cerdans, Pyrénees Orientales, France

thank you delores de l'Art, xchara

juneaukid profile image

juneaukid 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

Really enjoyed reading this piece. Is it true that Munch's "The Scream" was painted just after the eruption of Krakatoa? Apparently that volcano had a world-wide impact.

alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Really good interesting. Thanks, Dolores

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Hmrjmr - thanks, glad that you enjoyed my hub! - thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

juneeaukid - Yeah, that's what I've read. Amazing, huh, the sunsets were supposedly really wild for some time, even in Europe. Wasn't the year following Krakatoa the year without a summer in New England? Not sure, must check. Thanks.

alek - I am glad that you enjoyed it, and left a comment.

bgpappa profile image

bgpappa 7 years ago from Sacramento, California

Interesting read and great use of pictures and videos to really capture what you are talking about

Nemingha profile image

Nemingha 7 years ago

Lovely - really enjoyed reading this!

Hendrika van Aardt 7 years ago

I find the subject of art heists very fascinating,I'll be back to read it again with more attention. Very good job.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

papa - I so enjoyed putting this hub together. After reading the book about the Gardner heist, I'd love to go to that museum. The spots where the missing art hung has been left blank and the museum itself sounds fascinating. Thanks for stopping by!

Nemingha - glad that you enjoyed the hub!

Hendrika - I could have gone on and on and had to kind of cut back as it was. It is so interesting, even when the heists are heartbreaking. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

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paulgc 7 years ago

Very interesting hub, Wouldn't normally read about this topic but you have written it so well that i had to read it all.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

paulgc - glad you enjoyed the hub. I had a hard time getting it all in. I could have written many hubs about this fascinating subject.

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Well written, thanks for bringing this history to light! I once had a painting stolen (maybe more than once but one time that I'm sure of) personally it was a blow to my ego. You almost are flattered, but mostly you are just insulted that someone didn't even bother to give you some credit for what you poured your heart into. The painting of mine that was stolen was an incomplete and unsigned still life, the lack of signature bled even more insult to injury. Interesting that Munch created more than one version of "The Scream" and that it was stolen twice! Thanks for art education D!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Ben, glad that you enjoyed the hub. If you had a painting stolen, incomplete, that's pretty creepy. They could have at least waited until you finished it!

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Ha! What's more I still believe one of my painting mentors was in cahoots with the art thief, maybe that's just paranoia. Still, I wish I at least had a photo of it. It was a painting of silvery pots and pans with Christmas lights stranded through that, and then the lights had impasto globs of painting coming off of them like a Van Gogh, sigh...

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Ben - do you wonder if you know the person who stole it, or, perhaps, if it was a friend of a friend? People who steal things really stink. It's the lowest of the low. When you steal something, you lose a little piece of your soul. Let that be a comfort to you!

Cheeky Girl profile image

Cheeky Girl 7 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

It is incredible to think that people are motivated by the dea of robbing art. Some art is irreplaceable. A great read! Nice hub! : )

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Thank you Cheeky. After reading about the Gardner heist, I would like to visit that museum. I think you'd really get an idea of the effect of such horrible criminal activity by seeing those blank frames.

galleryofgrace profile image

galleryofgrace 7 years ago from Virginia

Great information. Imagine how my heart jumped when reading about Mona Lisa. I have a huge gorgeous framed print of Mona Lisa that I found in trash-35 years ago! It was stamped Washington DC,though, Corcoran Art Gallery.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

gallery - whoah, what a joy to find a gem like that in the trash! My son used to work for the Corcoran and I always thought some dumpster diving was in order there. I was shocked to learn that the Mona Lisa had been stolen. I found several books at the library about art heists and was drawn in. Then I decided to write this hub about it!

Living In Paris profile image

Living In Paris 7 years ago

Hey Delores, did you hear that the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign from the Auschwitz concentration camp gate was recently stolen (and recovered soon after, cut into 3 pieces)? Apparently there's a lucrative black market for Holocaust paraphernalia, which may have been the motive. Go figure. Fascinating hub. I enjoyed it.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Paris - they'll take anything. Durn if I'd want to take the Auschwitz sign. I'd never sleep again. That is so sick.

RosWebbART profile image

RosWebbART 7 years ago from Ireland

Great hub.

Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 7 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Fantastic Hub! Much of my own artwork ( deals with art that exists in museum storage depositories (hidden or stored for various reasons - anything from theft to political choices), so I find your piece very interesting. Thanks for sharing!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Thanks, RosWebb, glad you liked it!

Laura - much is stored in museums also because there is only so much room for display. Thanks for stopping by!

fastfreta profile image

fastfreta 6 years ago from Southern California

Dolores that was such a really good hub. I had intended to stop reading and write, but I ran across this hub and couldn't put it down. What a fascinating writer you are and so much research. WOW! Keep 'em coming.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Thank you so much, Freta. I really appreciate your kind comment because you are such a good writer yourself! I also wind up reading so many hubs. It does take away from the writing, but this is a community and reading other people's stuff, commenting and supporting them is part of the whole scene. Besides, bread cast upon the waters...

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dnrkrishnan25 6 years ago

good info....thank you so much...

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Thank you, dnrkrishna. I sure enjoyed writing this hub and reading all those books.

Juliette Morgan profile image

Juliette Morgan 6 years ago

First class writing - I love movies about art heists, diamond robberies etc.,thanks, Juliette.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Juliette, so do I. I picked up the book about the Gardiner heist and became so interested, I read several others so created the hub. Glad you enjoyed it!

cydro profile image

cydro 5 years ago from Kentucky

I just wrote a hub about heists and came across a lot of these. Well written article about them. Vote up and awesome!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

cydro - yes, heists are fascinating, especially art heists, even though those people are so evil. Glad you liked. Will check out your hub!

funmontrealgirl profile image

funmontrealgirl 5 years ago from Montreal

I never knew the Mona Lisa had been taken. Wow, this is certainly fascinating. I watch this show White Collar and it covers a lot about art theft and forgeries(fictitiously of course).

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

funmontrealgirl - well I didn't either until I started researching this hub. The people were so upset, and no wonder. I wound up reading 3 or 4 books on the subject, very intriguing. Thank you!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

funmontreal - well I didn't either until I started researching this hub. The topic is fascinating and I wound up reading 3 or 4 books on the subject. Thank you!

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Jeff_McRitchie 5 years ago

Fascinating stuff, especially the bit about "The Scream" being stolen twice. Thanks for posting this.

Elias Zanetti profile image

Elias Zanetti 3 years ago from Athens, Greece

Interesting hub. Art theft is surely a big business considering the incredibly high price of art masterpieces. Works of art should be availabe to the public in museum rather than in private collection of rich people (where they usually end up after have been stolen).

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Elias Zanetti - about a month ago, the FBI made a big announcement that they knew part of the path of the Stewart Gardener items, where they had been originally taken. Then that was that and never heard any more. It's a sad story when something so wonderful that is there for everyone to share is hogged up by greedy criminals. The even sadder thing is when the criminals don't understand how to care for what they have stolen and wind up ruining painting, etc. Thanks!

BonnieHall profile image

BonnieHall 3 years ago from California

Great hub! It's true - very intriguing topic.... for further information the Smithsonian Institution sponsors a National Conference on Cultural Property Protection which provides professionals in the field with valuable information on protecting cultural properties. Additionally, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), a nonprofit think tank dedicated principally to raising the profile of art crime, focuses on all kinds of other crimes including forgery in which we are seeing a tremendous rise.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

BonnieHall - thank you for reading and leaving such an informative comment. I appreciate it!

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