Guest Post – The World’s Biggest Art Thefts

Today I’m featuring a guest post by Kieran Conway.

Art theft is the 3rd highest grossing criminal operation in the world, with only drugs and guns ahead of it. Extremely valuable pieces of art have been stolen for centuries, with estimates placing the recovery rate at only 5-10%. This article contains some of the biggest art thefts to ever take place.

The Mona Lisa Robbery

The Mona Lisa.
Image via Wikipedia

Even the world’s most famous painting couldn’t be kept from the clutches of criminals. It was stolen from the Louvre on 21 August 1911, a robbery that wasn’t even discovered until the next day. A painter named Louis Beroud entered the gallery to sketch the Mona Lisa, only to find it was gone. He alerted the guards and there was much confusion about where the painting was. When it was confirmed that the painting had in fact been stolen the gallery was closed for a week to allow investigations to take place.

The famous painter Pablo Picasso was arrested and questioned over the robbery after being accused of stealing the painting by a friend. He was later acquitted, and it would be two years before the real culprit was found.

Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre believed the painting should be housed in Italy, so he hid in a cupboard and stole the painting when the gallery closed by hiding it under his coat. Peruggia was caught when he tried to sell the painting to an Italian gallery. Considered an Italian hero, he only served 6 months in prison for the crime. The Mona Lisa was rehoused in the Louvre in 1913.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery

On 18 March 1990, thieves entered the Boston gallery dressed as policemen and stole a total of thirteen pieces of artwork. These pieces included a number of paintings from artists such as Rembrandt, Manet and Degas. The total value of these items is estimated to be between $300 million and $500 million, making this the most valuable art theft in history.

The artwork has remained undiscovered for over 20 years, with many empty frames still in place at the museum awaiting the return of their paintings. The crime is still being investigated by the museum and the FBI with a reward of $5 million being offered for information.

Edvard Munch Robberies

Edvard Munch created several copies of ‘The Scream’, two paintings and two pastels. On 12 February 1994, one of the paintings was stolen from the Norwegian national gallery whilst much of the country was distracted by the Winter Olympics opening ceremony. The thieves left a note which read ‘Thanks for the poor security’. The painting was recovered 3 months later by a sting operation.

In 2004 the other painted version of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was stolen from the Munch museum in Oslo alongside another of his paintings ‘Madonna’. After this robbery the museum closed for 10 months and spent $6 million upgrading its security. The thieves were arrested and charged in May 2006, with the paintings being discovered by the police 3 months later. After work was undertaken to repair some damage caused by the robbery they were rehoused in the Munch museum.

Foundation E.G. Bührle Robbery

On 10 February 2008 three masked men stole 4 impressionist paintings from the Foundation E.G. Bührle collection in Zurich. The paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh were valued at over $160 million. The paintings by Monet and Van Gogh were discovered 8 days later in a nearby car park, but the other two’s whereabouts are still unknown.

To this day countless works of art from artists such as Vermeer, Picasso, Cézanne, Degas, van Eyck, and many more remain stolen, with 20,000-30,000 thefts being reported every year in Italy alone!

South Bank Art is a London based art supplies retailer offering artist supplies online and in store.

One thought on “Guest Post – The World’s Biggest Art Thefts

  1. Greetings Wendy,
    I would like to introduce you to a film, The Missing Piece: The Truth about the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa. We are just wrapping the final post-production of the film. I am sure given your interest you will find this completely accurate account of the theft fascinating. More important, the film features Celestina Peruggia, Vincenzo’s only child, who longed to know the truth about her father’s motivation for his theft of the most famous painting in the world. Film maker, Joe Medeiros, wanted to know the answer to that question for 35 years. When he discovered Celestina was alive he went to interview her for the answer and discovered she knew less about her father than he did. With Celestina’s blessing and mandate to find the truth, he took all of his existing research and accumulated all of the primary source research to discover the mystery and set the record straight about Vincenzo’s life story, the theft, and his true reason for stealing the painting. At the end of the film, Medeiros must tell Celestina what he has found and wonders how she will receive the news.
    This is the most historically accurate account of the theft told by the film maker with charm, humor, and respect for the Peruggia family’s history. I hope you will visit the website. The film is currently in review for film festivals and will be released theatrically in the fall of 2012.


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