Top HeistsTop Heists. Top 10 Art Heists of All Time.
According to the FBI art and cultural property crime, including theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking, is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually. And this is nothing new. With spectacular art heists dating back for nearly a hundred years, they have only gotten more brazen.
So how do you make the top ten art heists of all time? By stealing something historic, doing it in a never before seen manner, or even by sheer stupidity. We have gathered them all, from the well known to those only spoken of in artistic circles, read about them all below.
1. The Mona Lisa : One of the world’s most famous paintings is of a woman with a sly smile as painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century. On August 21, 1911, almost one hundred years ago, a museum worker at the Louvre, which held the painting, walked out with it under his smock. Believing it should be held at an Italian museum, Vincenzo Perugia hid out in a room after hours and was able to walk off with it. The authorities then conducted a two year search to find the culprit to no avail until they received a letter from an art buyer claiming that someone was trying to sell him the Mona Lisa. After agreeing to a meeting to verify the authenticity of the painting, the thief was apprehended and the painting returned. For stealing such a noted work of art and having it in his possession for two years, this is the most amazing art heist of all time.
2. The Scream : Edward Munch painted four versions of the small man screaming in expressionist form from 1893 to 1910. One is displayed in the National Gallery of Norway and another is owned privately. However, two were held by the Munch Museum where one was stolen, along with another of Munch’s works in 2004. A shocking art heist, two armed men actually ripped the paintings off the walls as visitors looked on horrified. The estimated value of the paintings was $19 million. Although no one was hurt in the art heist, the crime was suspected to be a detraction for other serious crimes. Eventually, both of the paintings were recovered but they had both been damaged. After undergoing extensive restoration, they were both redisplayed in 2008.
3. Gardner Museum Heist : Although the paintings stolen are lesser known, the collective estimated value of $300 million makes this one of the top art heists of all time. Boston heiress Isabella Gardner had traveled the world to acquire amazing artistic works to display in the museum. It ended up catching the attention of two thieves in 1990. The two entered the museum dressed as police officers and took a whole collection of paintings including three works by Manet, one by Vermeer, five sketches by Degas, and three Rembrandts. Even though the statute of limitations has expired and the district attorney has promised not to prosecute, the paintings’ whereabouts are still a mystery 20 years later. Even a five million dollar reward has turned up no paintings.
4. Sunflowers : Vincent Van Gogh’s life and art are known throughout the world. In 1917, he painted his most noted work: Sunflowers. Seventy-four years later two thieves would break into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and steal it, along with a whopping 20 other paintings. Another amazing art heist, all the paintings were recovered only a few hours later completely intact in the getaway car. After another art heist, the criminals known as The Monkey and accomplice would be caught after stealing two other priceless paintings. The thieves were convicted and sentenced but the two paintings were never found.
5. Madonna of the Yarwinder : First created in 1501, this is one of the many masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci. In 2003, this painting was held at the private residence of the Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland where it was stolen by two men posing as tourists. Valued at a whopping $65 million, the police scrambled to find and arrest the culprits. Since then, the painting has been returned and six men have been arrested.
6. Portrait of the Duke of Wellington : In 1812, Francisco de Goya painted a portrait of the Duke of Wellington and it was later hung in the National Gallery in London. One of the strangest art heists of all time, it was allegedly stolen by a bus driver in 1961. The story went that Kempton Bunton climbed through a toilet window to steal it after hearing it was to be sold for nearly $400,000. He then demanded a ransom for the same amount. However, Bunton voluntarily returned the painting three years later and received only three months jail time after his legal team successfully argued that he only wanted the frame. To add an extra bizarre twist, the painting was featured in the James Bond movie “Dr. No” as they believed at the time that a mastermind had stolen it.
7. Conversation With A Gardener : Painted in 1875, this work of art by Pierre-Auguste Renoir is currently displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. However, in 2000 it was a key attraction in the Swedish National Museum before it was stolen in an elaborate art heist. Robbers set car bombs to detonate across the city, successfully distracting police long enough for three of them to enter the museum with machine guns, stealing this work and others by Renoir and Rembrandt, valued at $30 million. Eight men were arrested and convicted of the crime, and the three paintings would eventually be returned to the public years later.
8. Various Paintings : The works of Coubert, Tintoretto, and Piot may not be well known outside of the art world, but they were part of one of the most outrageous art heists in history. In 2002 when thieves heard of an extravagant art showing in Paraguay, they began to plan months in advance. They actually rented a nearby building and began digging a tunnel into the museum. Eighty feet long, when it was completed, the thieves simply strolled into the museum and helped themselves. The thieves were later arrested and the paintings returned.
9. Poverty : The painting may not be famous, but the artist Pablo Picasso is. Created during his blue period, this work was made in 1903. It again made headlines exactly 100 years later in 2003 when it was part of the Manchester art heist. During a stay at the Whitworth Gallery it became the target of thieves, along with pieces by Gauguin and Van Gogh. Using unbelievable stealth, thieves managed to take the paintings, valued at 1.5 million dollars, without setting off any alarms or being caught on camera. However, the next day the paintings were recovered in a public toilet near the museum on an anonymous tip. After undergoing restoration, they were all returned.
10. Iraqi National Museum : The U.S./Iraqi conflict has led to many tragedies, including the art heist of 2003 in which an estimated 15,000 artifacts were stolen from it. Among the missing are the diorite statue of Entemena and almost 5,000 cylinder seals. However, the museum did reopen in 2009, and many of the artifacts have been returned.
We watch movies about art and other heists, but the real ones are far more interesting. With so many art thieves successfully making off with paintings, but view actually selling them, art heists are one of the strangest crimes known to the modern world, making the top ten art heists of all time both fascinating and confusing reading.