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Art Heists, Art Thieves, and Famous Missing Masterpieces

Updated on November 2, 2020

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
The Mona Lisa was once stolen | Source

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?

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.

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

More recently, a lost Willem de Kooning painting called Woman - Ochre painted in the mid 1950s and stolen from the University of Arizona in 1985 turned up at an antique shop in New Mexico. When the shop owners realized that they had purchased the painting from the estate sale of a former school teacher, they reported the painting,

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
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Source

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 Galilee
Storm on the Sea of Galilee | Source

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
The Concert by Vermeer | Source

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
The Scream | Source

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

For Further Reading

Stealing Rembrants: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists by Anthony M Amore

Stealing the Show: A History of Art Crime in Six Thefts by John Barelli

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by

Robert K. Wittman


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