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Famous Heists of the Last 100 Years

Updated on May 24, 2015
Empty frames from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
Empty frames from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist | Source

The Master's

There are few stories more captivating than a good caper and with all the hype surrounding the latest diamond theft I found myself looking back at some of the great heists of the last hundred or so years.

I have to admit I was drawn in by the sheer audacity of some of these schemes, reading about them is like reading a novel, you can't help imagining the great masterminds behind the best of these elaborate plans, quietly noting schedules and shipments, restorations and guard routes. And though I do not condone the crimes and cringe at the crass attempts to plunder or the violent thieves who lack the elegance of a plan I can't help siding a bit with the true masters who disappear into the night without notice or bodily harm. Unfortunately, for every master thief there seem hundreds of less artistic criminals.

Below is a review of several of the most sensational heists of the last century. Not a social or moral review, just a historical one.

Mona Lisa Theft 1911
Mona Lisa Theft 1911 | Source

The Louvre 1911

On August 21, 1911 Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian immigrant and a former Louvre employee walked into the museum, took the famous painting "Mona Lisa" out of its frame, put it under his coat and walked out.

The painting remained at large for two years until he attempted to sell the masterpiece to an Italian museum in Perugia, after which he told the authorities that his intention was to bring the famous Da Vinci work back to its homeland. The Italians were sympathetic to his act of patriotism and he was given only a one year sentence.

Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology 1985

On December 24, 1985 thieves stole 140 relics from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology including jade and gold pieces from the Maya, Aztec, Zapotec and Mixtec sculptures. Since most of the pieces were only about an inch or so and the museum's alarm system had been broken for the past three years the perpetrators had a fairly easy time of it. The items were not even discovered missing until the next morning, despite the eight guards on duty.

Interestingly almost all the pieces were recovered in a drug raid in June of 1989 and are now back on display.

Musée d’Art Moderne Paris 2010

On May 20, 2010 a cat burglar crept into Paris’ Musée d'Art Moderne taking five priceless paintings, including Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois and Matisse’s La Pastorale from their frames and slipped back out into the night, only his silhouette caught on camera.

The pieces he stole were worth over $130 million (US). None of them have turned up yet though at least one (the Picasso) the police believe was thrown away by the frightened thief. Unfortunately the garbage was emptied before it could be recovered.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 1990

Arguably one of the greatest art thefts of all time occurred on March 17, 1990 when two men in police uniforms knocked on a side door of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum allegedly in response to a disturbance on the grounds. Once inside they handcuffed the guards, locked them in a cellar and made off with $300 million worth of art including a Vermeer, two Rembrandt's, one Manet, five pieces by Degas, one Flink, an ancient Chinese Qu; and a finial that once stood atop a flag from Napoleon's Army.

So far none of the artwork has been recovered and the Gardner Museum is still offering $5 million for information leading to the recovery of these works in good condition.

Carlton Hotel Cannes, France 1994

On August 11, 1994, three masked men with machine guns forced their way into the Carlton Hotel jewelry store just before closing time. Shooting their weapons in the air they grabbed almost $60 million worth of jewelry, getting away unscathed.

Later, investigators discovered that the thieves had been firing blanks. Neither the thieves or the jewels were ever seen again.

Stephane Breitwieser
Stephane Breitwieser

Stephane Breitwieser 1995 - 2001

What kind of a man steals 238 priceless relics and works of art for no one but himself? In the course of 5 years travelling around Europe working as a waiter Stephane Breitwieser stole $1.4 billion worth of art from 172 museums and sold none of it. When asked about it he replied, "I enjoy art. I love such works of art. I collected them and kept them at home."

He was finally caught after stealing a 1584 bugle from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, but despite his large collection only served 26 months of jail time.

Antwerp Diamond Center 2003

On February 16, 2003 a crew of thieves broke into the Antwerp Diamond Center, where they emptied 100 safe deposit boxes of their diamonds, gold and jewelry totaling over $100 million, then stole the security footage of themselves doing it.

Though the mastermind of the heist, infamous jewel thief Leonardo Notarbartolo was convicted (only because of an unlucky piece of DNA evidence found in a bag of trash left behind along the highway), the gold and jewels were never found.

Interestingly, Mr. Notarbartolo was at the Brussels airport on the day of the latest $50 million diamond heist, though he could hardly have done the job since he'd been flown there in custody after being extradited from France.

Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport 2005

On February 25, 2005, four men ambushed an armored truck on its way to Antwerp's diamond district. They drove a stolen KLM cargo vehicle making it easy to blend in. Waiving their guns, they forced out the drivers and sped away with what has been estimated to be up to $118 million in gems, making it one of the largest jewel heists in history...and it is still unsolved.

Museu da Chácara do Céu Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2006

On February 24, 2006 thieves took advantage of a carnival parade passing the Museu da Chácara do Céu stealing works by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet. Slipping back into the carnival crowd undetected and never found.

“Le pigeon aux petits pois” by Picasso
“Le pigeon aux petits pois” by Picasso

A few other notable heists

  • Ghent's Cathedral of Saint Bavo 1934
  • Stephen Hahn Art Gallery 1969
  • Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 1972
  • Stockholm’s National Museum 2000
  • Oslo National Art Museum 1994 and 2004
  • Harry Winston 2008
  • Graff Diamonds 2009
  • Swedish National Museum 2010
  • Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2010

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    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 2 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      Hi Brownella. This was fun and interesting to read. I can't imagine the nerve it would take to pull any of these off. Boy, I'd be a wreak! Have a great day. Kim.

    • brownella profile image
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      brownella 2 years ago from New England

      Hi Kim. I know, some of these plans are pretty crazy! They sound more like something out of a film than real life. It was definitely fun to research. Thanks for reading : -)

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