Art has always been the target of thieves because one painting can not only fetch millions but it is prized the world over. Stealing a piece of art can also net the thief prestige beyond their wildest dreams, if they can pull it off. While the movies make art thefts out to be a matter of skill and cunning, some of these thefts are more a matter of dumb luck and most of them ended with the thieves getting caught.
The Mona Lisa 1911
In 1911, the Mona Lisa hung in the Louvre on display for the world to see just as it had been since 1797. On the 21st of August, a Louvre worker Vincent Peruggia stole the painting. He claimed that he entered the museum on August 21st while the museum was closed and because he wore the same white coveralls of the rest of the employees, no one took notice of him. Other reports suggest that he actually entered the Louvre on the 20th and hid in broom closet until after hours. The Mona Lisa was hanging in the Salon Carré and Peruggia waited until the room was empty to remove the Mona Lisa and its protective case off the iron pegs that it hung on. He then took the painting to a service staircase and removed it from its protective case. He wrapped his coveralls around the painting and then left out the door. The theft was discovered the next day and the Louvre was shut down for a week to investigate the painting’s disappearance. Two years later the theft still went unsolved until Vincent Peruggia attempted to sell the painting to an Italian museum, claiming that he had stolen it to return the painting to Italy. Once the painting was verified, there was two weeks of celebration where the painting was displayed in Italy before being returned to the Louvre. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the picture for Frances I of France, so it was never meant to remain in Italy. As for Vincent Peruggia he was seen as a bit of an Italian hero, who did what he did out of patriotism and therefore only served seven months in prison. The reason for the theft is unknown. Many believe that it was a matter of patriotism but it would not explain why he waited two years and then tried to sell the painting. Another rumor was that it was stolen in order for copies to made and the copies would be sold at a much higher value if they could be reported as the missing Mona Lisa.
The Ghent Altarpiece has had numerous brushes with destruction being that it is not only a beautiful piece but one that some consider to be one of the most influential works of art in history. On April 10th, 1934 the altarpiece was being displayed at the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium and the following day it was discovered that two of the panels were missing. The panels, known as the Just Judges and Saint John the Baptiste, were replaced with a note that said “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.” The note was in reference to the fact that the painting had been moved to Germany during World War I but then returned to Belgium with the Treaty of Versailles. An investigation immediately began but there were no leads until April 30th when the Bishop of Ghent received a ransom demand of 1 million francs for the return of the panel. Negotiations went back and forth as Belgium considered the piece a national treasure and wanted it returned. After the exchange of 11 letters, the thief returned one of the panels, Saint John the Baptiste, as a show of good faith. On November 25th, 1934 Arsene Goedertier was on his deathbed and told his lawyer that he alone knew where the panel was. He directed his lawyer to open a drawer which contained one clue as to the whereabouts of the panel. The drawer contained a paper with the words “It rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.” A month later the lawyer informed the police who concluded that Goedertier must have stolen the painting. Ever since, Ghent police have been searching for the painting and to this day the case is assigned to an officer on the force. Over the years investigations have led to x-raying the cathedral from which it was stolen, the church offering police documents on the painting but refusing to offer any on the period from 1934 to 1945, Goedertier’s wife suggesting the panel never went far from the cathedral, and the discovery of an outline the exact size of the panel at a church near Goedertier’s home town. One detective even illegally exhumed the skull of Goedertier which was then stolen in order to hold a seance and ask Goedertier’s ghost about the painting.
In the early morning hours of December 31st, 1966 eight paintings were stolen from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. They included three pictures by Rembrandt, A Girl at the Window, Portrait of Titus and Jacob de Gheyn III. There were also three pictures by Rubens (Three Women with a Cornucopia, St. Barbara, The Three Graces), a Gerrit Dou (A Lady Playing on the Clavicord) and a painting by Adam Elsheimer (Susannah and the Elders). The paintings were worth at least £3 million. Despite the value of the paintings, only £1,000 was offered for their safe return.
An investigation was quick to find out the truth about the theft. Detective Superintendent Charles Hewett found that Michael Hall an out of work ambulance driver was one of the thieves. All of the paintings were recovered and Michael Hall was sentenced to 5 years in prison. None of the other thieves were caught but all of the paintings were returned to the picture gallery within a few days of the theft.
This was not the only time that the Jacob de Gheyn III painting was taken from the Dulwich College Picture Galley and it has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most frequently stolen artwork in the world. It has been recovered in a number of strange ways including in a left-luggage office in West Germany, on the back of a bicycle and under a bench in a graveyard in Streatham. With the popularity of the painting with thieves it is now protected with an upgraded security system.
Russborough House is a stately home in Ireland that was built between 1741 and 1755. It continues to be a beautiful addition to the Irish countryside but it has often been the target of thieves. The Russborough House has been robbed numerous times in order to get the art collection within. In 1952, Sir Alfred Beit bought the home and moved in his family’s art collection. The art collection featured works by famous artists including Goya, Peter Paul Rubens, Vermeer and Thomas Gainsborough. The first theft of his art collection occurred in 1974.
An IRA gang which included the British heiress Rose Dugale, broke through the window of the home and tied up the Beits in order to steal 19 of the masterworks included in the art collection. The IRA gang demanded £500,000 and the release of two IRA prisoners for the return of the art. A week after the theft a raid on a farmhouse uncovered the paintings and led to the arrest of Rose Dugale.
On May 21st, 1986 Martin Cahill led a 10 men gang to the Russborough house in order to steal some of the paintings in the name of the IRA. They took 18 paintings knowing the famous works would not be able to be sold. They dropped 7 alongside the road during their getaway and made off with the 11 best. Martin Cahill was not done with Russborough House after the 1986 theft, despite the substantial police investigation against him to recover the missing paintings. Two more thefts of the prized art collection occurred in 2001 and 2002 were conducted by an associate of Cahill, Martin Foley.
Over the decades since 1986 police have led an intensive investigation into Martin Cahill and his associates leading to all but two of the paintings being recovered. The majority of the Beit art collection was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland, where it remains on display today.
Stephen Hahn was a renowned art dealer in the United States for a number of years getting his start by selling paintings out of the trunk of his car. He slowly built up his funds and his reputation in order to open the Stephen Hahn Gallery at 75th and Madison Avenue in New York. He was considered to be an expert on the likes of Degas, Picasso and several other master painters. During the height of his gallery in New York he was responsible for one of the most significant collections of 20th century masters in the world.
On November 17th, 1969 art thieves broke into the Stephen Hahn Art Gallery. They managed to pick a lock that Stephen Hahn had boasted was “unpickable” and then forced their way into the gallery. Inside they managed to grab seven master works, including paintings by Roualt (Christ et Deux Disciples), Pissarro (L’Hermitage Pontoise), Monet (Nympheas) and Cassatt (Mere et Enfant). Their value to the Madison Avenue art gallery was set at $500,000. In 1976, the four paintings mentioned above were recovered. The other three paintings stolen were Interior at Nice by Henri Matisse, Portait of a Woman by Berthe Morisot and Cart in the Forest by Marc Chagall.
Perhaps what makes this theft stand out from the others is the ironic twist in which at the time of the theft Stephen Hahn was away having gone to speak at the Art Dealers Association of America. The topic of the night was to discuss art theft in the city. As Stephen Hahn was speaking of his own efforts to thwart art theft, including mentioning his unpickable lock, his own gallery was being robbed. Stephen Hahn still kept his humor about the matter. He would later accuse the thieves as being very “conservative” for passing up some of the more expensive and stand-out pieces by Picasso for the conservative pieces of Monet and Pisarro.
On March 18th, 1990 one of the biggest art heists in history took place. A red Dodge Daytona pulled up to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and waited until 1 am. At that point two men, dressed as police officers convinced the security guard at the museum to let them in. Once inside the men claimed that they had a warrant out for the security guard’s arrest and quickly cuffed him. When the second security guard finished his rounds and came upon the scene he was cuffed and both guards had their mouths, hands and feet duct taped. Motion sensors then tracked the steps of the two men as they moved throughout the museum to remove the priceless works of art.
Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee is Rembrandt’s only known seascape and it was cut from its frame. Rembrandt’s The Lady and Gentleman in Black was also stolen. The thieves then moved on to the Vermeer’s The Concert which is one of only 34 known Vermeer works in the world. In total 11 paintings, an ancient Chinese gu and a bronze finial were stolen. Their value has been placed at over $500 million which makes this the biggest art theft from a private residence in history.
There have been a number of investigations and some have even suspected the security guards as being in on the heist. None of the leads have proven successful. No one has been charged with the crime and no artwork has been recovered. To this day the empty frames sit inside the museum as homage to the missing paintings and placeholders for when they are returned. Initially a reward of $1 million was offered for the return of the paintings but it was increased to $5 million in 1997. The museum keeps the reward on offer to this day and has even offered instructions to help whoever has the artwork in their possession to keep them in good condition.
On October 28th 1985 in broad daylight, 5 men in masked entered the Marmottan Museum in Paris armed with pistols. They threatened both guests and security inside the museum. As those inside the museum watched, the thieves took seven paintings off the walls and removed two more from a glass case. The men escaped with the paintings which were valued at anywhere from $12 to $20 million. The most important of the paintings stolen was Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet which was the painting that coined the phrase “Impressionism” after one critic labeled the painting as impressionistic. Other painters would latch onto that word and the impressionist movement was born.
The other stolen paintings were Camille Monet and Cousin on the Beach at Trouville, Portrait of Jean Monet, Portrait of Poly, Fisherman of Belle-Isle and Field of Tulips in Holland by Monet. Young Woman at the Ball by Berthe Morisot, Bather Sitting on a Rock and Portrait of Monet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Portrait of Monet by Sei-ichi Naruse.
An art theft union of the French police tracked the paintings through several years of investigations. A tip off in 1997 in which the paintings were featured in a catalog sent to Japanese buyers was uncovered. The trail was followed but police worked slowly and carefully to ensure that the paintings would not be destroyed. In December of 1990 the paintings were found in Corsica. The most famous painting Impression, Sunrise only had minor damage from humidity. However, Field of Tulips in Holland was slashed and Young Girl at the Ball had two holes. The paintings were fully restored and back on display at the Marmottan within a few months. Seven people were arrested in the recovery of the paintings.
Any number of art heists by John Tillman could have been featured on this list. The prolific art thief was believed to have stolen over 10,000 pieces of art from museums, galleries, archives and antique shops from all over the world. An international collaboration between the FBI, United States Department of Homeland Security, The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigated the suspected thief. In January of 2013, Tillman was arrested and in the first week alone, 3,000 works of art were uncovered from his home. Within weeks police ran out of room within their storage facilities to store all the artifacts that were found. For the next three years the investigation continued to track down all the pieces that had been stolen, sold and hidden away by the prolific art thief. He was sentenced to 9 years in prison was but released on parole after only 2 years. 2 million of his assets were also seized under the process of crime legislation. John Tillman was born Nova Scotia and traveled to Russia in the late 1990s where he learned to speak the language. He married a Slavic woman and the pair worked together to pull off several heists. Tillman was reported to be an expert at sleight of hand and was so cocky in his thefts that some reports state he was known to have sex with his wife during them. He refused to ever reveal the names of his accomplices and many believe that they continue to avoid custody in Russia. The treasure hoard of John Tillman is credited as being one of the biggest treasure hoards uncovered in modern history. Despite the amount of art and money recovered, some believe that John Tillman has more art and money stashed away which allows him to continue to live comfortably after his release from prison in 2015. There are even some who have linked the art thief with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. He currently lives on a small island on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia.
The theft at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972 is the largest theft in Canadian history. It occurred at 2 am on September 4th 1972 when three armed men entered the museum through the skylight. The museum was undergoing repairs that left the skylight only partially alarmed. One of the men fired a shot gun twice into the air after one of the security guards refused to immediately get down on the ground. The guard then complied and was bound and gagged. The other two guards were then overpowered and bound as well.
During the 30-minute heist the thieves were able to steal jewelry, figurines and 18 paintings with an overall value of $2 million. Paintings by Delacroix, Gainsborough and Rembrandt alone had a value of $1 million. The museum spokesman at the time states that the thieves knew what they were looking for and knew exactly what to take to get the most value. The thieves intended to take 20 additional paintings but they were left behind after a door alarm was accidentally tripped as they were leaving the museum.
After the theft the museum director received an envelope that had pictures of the stolen art and artifacts and demanded a $250,000 ransom. A phone call directed him to a phone booth where a missing pendant was hidden. Proof of paintings was requested and led to a locker at Montreal’s Central Station where one of the missing paintings was recovered. A meetup was setup to exchange the ransom for the art but the thieves called off the meeting when a neighborhood police car drove past the location. The rest of the missing pieces have never been recovered and no suspects have been arrested.
Today the value of the paintings has only increased with the value of the rare Rembrandt landscape estimated at $20 million.
The theft of Henri Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Pants is not the most thrilling or the most expensive art theft but it is remains rather intriguing nonetheless as no one knows exactly when the painting was stolen. In 2002 the Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas received a call from a man who said that someone had offered to sell him the Odalisque in Red Pants. This was surprising to the museum as that painting was currently on display. However, experts at the museum looked into the matter and realized that the painting they had on their walls was fake and a bad one at that.
It is believed that the fake hung in the museum for at least 2 years as a photo taken in 2000 showed President Hugo Chavez standing in the museum with the fake Matisse behind him. An investigation into the missing painting began but the trail quickly went cold as there were few leads and the theft had occurred years prior. In 2000 the museum had received word that someone was trying to sell the painting but at that point no one followed up and the theft remained unnoticed until 2002.
Then in 2012 there was finally a break in the case as the F.B.I. learned that man in Miami was attempting to sell the painting. Federal agents posed as buyers and arranged to buy the artwork for $740,000. Then a woman flew to Miami from Mexico City with the painting in her possession and met up with the man selling the painting. Agents arrested both of them and the woman told them about how the painting had been stolen and replaced by museum employees. She also said that the painting had been in her possession for several years.
The painting was returned to the museum though the museum remains largely underfunded and neglected. The museum has reported several other missing pieces of art that have not been recovered and experts in Venezuela have said that under Chavez art like that of Matisse is not appreciated or protected.