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7 of the Most Famous Heists in Art History

Updated on January 26, 2012

From the famous Mona Lisa to a priceless native art collection, we take a look at the most sensational art heists of all time.

University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology - Bill Reid Haida Art (2008)

Estimated Value: $2 million

On May 23, 2008, thieves stole 15 pieces of precious native art from the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Twelve of those pieces were created by Bill Reid, a celebrated Haida artist who passed away in 1998. The thieves cut the security cameras, then slipped inside 4 hours later, when the security guard stepped out for a cigarette. They then made off with a gold box, broaches, bracelets and some argillite stone panels.

The thieves donned gas masks and doused the interior of the museum with bear repellent to immobilze anyone who tried to stop them, but no one did. The theft wasn’t even discovered until the next morning. All of the pieces were eventually recovered, but no charges have ever been laid.

The Louvre - Mona Lisa (1911)

Estimated Value: $1.5 Million (At the Time of Theft)

On the morning of August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa—arguably the most famous painting of all time—was stolen from the Louvre. The thief acted quickly, when no guards were around, and nobody even noticed until the next day. When the crime was finally discovered, the museum closed, French borders were sealed and all departing ships and trains were searched.

A French poet came under suspicion and was even arrested. He tried to implicate his friend, Pablo Picasso, but both were let go. It wasn’t until two years later than the painting was finally discovered. It turned out that an Louvre employee hid it in a broom closet and walked out with after after closing hours. And why did he steal it? Because he believed the painting should be returned to Italy and displayed in an Italian Museum. He served six months in jail for the crime.

Munch Museum - The Scream and The Madonna (2004)

Estimated Value: $19 million

On August 22, 2004, during broad daylight, masked gunmen entered Oslo’s Munch Museum, took The Scream and The Madonna off the wall and ran out to a waiting car. Three men were arrested the following year but the paintings remained at large until Oslo police recovered them in 2006. They never revealed the circumstances surrounding the discovery of these famous paintings.

Mexico City National Museum of Anthropology - Maya, Aztec, Zapotec and Miztec culptures (1985)

Estimated Value: Over $20 million

On Christmas Eve of 1985, thieves made off with over 140 precious objects from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. The Pre-Columbian sculptures they stole were tiny—only an inch or so in height—but they were priceless in terms of both monetary and cultural value (one piece alone was worth $20 million).

How did this happen, you ask? Well, it probably had something to do with the fact that the museum’s alarms hadn’t been working for the past three years. And despite there being 8 guards on duty, the theft wasn’t even discovered until the morning. Five years later, police discovered almost all of the artifacts in good condition, hidden in a house near Mexico City. Only 5 objects are still missing.

Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - A Vermeer, 3 Rembrandts, 5 Degas drawings, and a Manet (1990)

Estimated Value: $500 million

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Musuem, claiming to be responding to a call. The naïve guard let them in without question. Once inside, the thieves told the guard them recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. They asked him to come out from behind the desk (away from the only alarm button) and told him to summon the only other security guard. Once the second guard arrived, the thieves tied them both up in the basement and proceeded to steal 13 valuable works of art.

The crime wasn’t reported until the morning, when the relief security guard discovered his two coworkers in the basement. The paintings have never been found, and even today several empty frames hang as an homage to the missing works.

London National Gallery - Goya's "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington" (1961)

Estimated Value: $392,000

In August of 1961, retired bus driver Kempton Bunton crawled through a bathroom window in London’s National Gallery (sensors were turned off during morning cleanings), took Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington off the wall and ran off with it. The painting had only been on display for 19 days. Bunton returned it 4 years later but only served a 3 month jail sentence because the defence ruled he was only responsible for the theft of the frame, which he didn’t return.

Swedish National Museum - A Rembrandt and 2 Renoirs (2000)

Estimated value: Over $36 million

In December of 2000, three people armed with machine guns held up the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. They spent 40 minutes ransacking the museum, making off with two Renoir paintings, Conversation With a Gardener and Young Parisian, and a 1630 self-portrait by Rembrandt, valued at $36 million.

At the same time, two car bombs went off, blocking the only roads leading to the museum, which is located on a peninsula. The thieves then took off in a their high-speed getaway boat.

To crack the case, Swedish authorities hired Robert Wittmann to go undercover and pose as crooked art dealer. After weeks of negotiation, the thieves agreed to sell him the Rembrandt for $250,000. They met in a hotel, where a Danish SWAT team moved in and made their arrests. The two Renoirs have since been recovered.


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