Earlier this week, a lone thief wearing a mask broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art through a window and stole five paintings worth an estimated 100 million euros, or 124 million USD. The paintings included a Picasso, a Matisse, and a Braque. One expert, Alice Farren-Bradley of the Art Loss Registry in London, said the heist “appears to be one of the biggest” ever. This made us curious. Was it? The FBI projects that as much as $6 billion is lost every year to art and culture property crime. Since both art and burglars have been around for as long as we can remember, we decided to take a look at other high-profile art heists throughout history to find out.
Date: August 20, 1911
Location: The Louvre; Paris, France
Description: One of the world’s most famous paintings was apparently not one of its most secure. A former Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, had stolen the piece after hiding in the museum overnight. Italian officials caught Peruggia when he tried to sell the masterpiece to a local dealer. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre on January 4, 1914, and Peruggia spent only a few months in jail because he said his intent was to return the painting back to its native Italy.
Date: March 18, 1990
Location: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Boston, USA
Description: Considered by many to be one of the biggest heists of its kind, two thieves dressed up as police officers entered the museum at 1:24 a.m., explaining to the security guards on duty that they had received a call about a disturbance. The impostors bound and gagged the guards with handcuffs and duct tape, then made off with 13 pieces, including works by Degas, Manet, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, which in total are thought to be valued around $500 million. The crime remains unsolved.
Date: February 12, 1994 and August 22, 2004
Location: The National Gallery and the Munch Museum; Oslo, Norway
Description: Munch had made several versions of his iconic The Scream, which expressed the rising levels of anxiety in the modern era. The first act of larceny occurred on the same day as the opening ceremonies for the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, which were being held in Norway. The thieves had left a note at the scene of the crime, reading: “Thanks for the poor security.” Authorities recovered the piece in 1996. Another version of The Scream was taken by gunpoint in 2004 right after the Munch Museum opened its doors to the public. The robbers were eventually caught, and the symbolic work, along with another stolen Munch painting, the Madonna, were returned with minimal damage.
Date: October 27, 1985
Location: The Marmottan Museum; Paris, France
Description: “Everyone was on the floor, like in a bank,” said Yves Brayer, curator of the Marmottan Museum, to the press after the robbery. “This is the first time anyone has stolen paintings with weapons… One guard was trembling like a crazy man when I arrived.” In total, the group of gun-wielding men stole nine paintings, including Renoir’s Bathers and Monet’s Impression, Sunrise — where Impressionism gets its name — that all together were worth around $12.5 million, if you can put a price to Monet’s seminal work. In 1991, the paintings were found in Corsica. Authorities believe a Japanese gangster named Shuinichi Fujikuma was behind the heist.
Date: December 31, 1999
Location: The Ashmolean Museum; Oxford, England
Description: While most people were gazing up at the fireworks on the eve of a new millennium, thieves climbed scaffolding to access to the roof of the museum. Once there, they broke through the glass skylight and lowered themselves down with rope ladders. Since the agile crooks stole only the one Cezanne painting, authorities believe it was stolen by special order. The painting was estimated to be worth 3 million quid at the time of the theft, and is still missing.
Date: February 10, 2008
Location: The Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection; Zurich, Switzerland
Description: On a sunny Sunday afternoon, three men in ski masks stole four masterpieces — a van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Degas — from the E.G. Bührle Collection half an hour before it closed. One man, armed with a pistol, ordered the employees to lie on the floor, while the other two grabbed the paintings, which combined are valued at $163 million. The men left the scene in a white van. Eight days later, the van Gogh and Monet were found in a car parked near a hospital.
Date: August 21, 1961
Location: The National Gallery; London, England
Description: After learning that the gallery’s infra-red sensors were turned off in the morning for cleaning, Kempton Bunton, a retired bus driver, climbed through a bathroom window in the wee hours to steal Goya’s painting, which was slated to be sold to an American collector for $392,000. Bunton anonymously claimed he would return the painting if $392,000 were donated to the poor to pay for TV licenses. There was no response. Four years later, Bunton returned the painting. He turned himself in six weeks later and spent three months in jail for his crime after his lawyers successfully argued that Bunton had stolen the frame, not the painting.
Date: February 8, 1988
Location: The Colnaghi Art Gallery; New York, USA
Description: On East 8th Street in Manhattan, thieves entered the private gallery by knocking a hole in its skylight then sliding down a rope. The thieves nabbed 18 paintings and ten drawings, including two works by Fra Angelico and Rayfish with Basket of Onions by Chardin. They exited through a hatch to the roof. At the time, the works were considered to be worth $6 to $10 million in total. Since the heist, 14 paintings have been recovered.
Date: April 14, 1991
Location: The Van Gogh Museum; Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Description: In order to steal 20 van Gogh paintings estimated to be worth around $10 million each, two masked men forced the security guards to turn off the alarm system at gunpoint. Authorities believe one of the thieves may have been hiding in the museum since Saturday afternoon. The robbers spent over an hour walking around the museum stripping paintings off the wall. Half an hour later, the paintings were found in an abandoned getaway car, which belonged to one of the museum guards. Three of the canvases were badly damaged, including Wheatfield with Crows.