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.