Famous Artworks: Famous Works of Art were Lost or Stolen and are Still Missing
These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today

D.G. Hewitt - October 5, 2018

Almost everybody loves a good heist movie. And even before the age of the movies, novels featuring ‘gentlemen thieves’ were hugely popular with audiences across Europe and America. For some, so long as nobody is hurt or threatened in the process, stealing works of art is the ultimate victimless crime. What’s more, taking a masterpiece from a museum or gallery not only takes huge amounts of audacity, even daring, but it almost invariably requires lots of meticulous planning.

Understandably, museums and galleries go to great lengths to get stolen artworks back. After all, some are worth millions, if not tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And governments might even get involved too, especially if a painting is the source of great national pride. This, and the fact that it’s almost impossible to sell a stolen painting on means that stolen works are usually recovered. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a painting is stolen and simply vanishes. Here we have 17 of the most famous – and valuable – works of art that are good, quite possibly for good.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Vermeer’s The Concert is worth an estimated $200 million and remains missing. Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Concert by Vermeer remains the most valuable missing painting in the world, worth more than $200 million

An American art collector acquired Vermeer’s The Concert at auction for the-then princely sum of $5,000 at a Paris auction back in 1892. The painting held pride of place in the gallery named in the philanthropist’s honor, the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. If the same painting went up for auction today, it would most probably be sold for more than $200 million. The problem is, however, that The Concert was stolen back in 1990. To this day, it remains the most valuable missing work of art in the world.

The Dutch master of later Johannes Vermeer most likely painted his missing masterpiece in 1664. It shows three musicians, all of the members of the Dutch bourgeoisie, at their instruments. It was an immediate hit, confirming Vermeer as one of the greatest painters of his generation. Even today, art critics praise his use of light and color and express admiration for the way he mixed the themes of music, social status and sexuality in such an apparently banal-looking domestic scene.

Vermeer’s acclaimed masterpiece was stolen, along with more than a dozen other works, on St Patrick’s Day in 1990. It’s thought that the two thieves didn’t really know what they were stealing. Rather, they just went through the museum taking what they could. Luckily for them, they managed to get away with a Dutch Old Master worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Boston police, as well as the FBI, are still working to solve has widely been referred to as the art heist of the century, or even the biggest of all time.

While several suspects have been identified over the years, no charges have ever been brought. Tragically, some investigators even believe that the Vermeer was destroyed by the thieves soon after it was taken, robbing Boston – and the world – of one of the world’s true masterpieces.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Everyone knows van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but his painting of poppies is missing. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Poppy Flowers, the $55 million van Gogh work that remains missing after being stolen from a Cairo museum for the second time

Just hours after Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers was stolen from an Egyptian museum, in August of 2010 police were confident they had got it back. They arrested a pair of suspicious Italian men boarding a plane out of the country. However, a thorough search of the pair’s luggage turned up nothing. The painting was gone. And its whereabouts remain a mystery, making it one of the most valuable missing artworks in the world today.

Van Gogh completed his painting of red and yellow poppies against a dark background in 1887, just three years before he took his own life. It was, according to the Dutchman’s biographers, a homage to one of Van Gogh’s heroes, Adolphe Monticelli. Though small, it was a greatly admired work. So much so, in fact, that it had been stolen before. In fact, it was taken from the same museum, the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo in the summer of 1977. It was smuggled out of the country, making its way to Kuwait and only recovered a whole decade later.

Thieves struck again in 2010. One summer evening, a gang broke into the famous museum by the banks of the River Nile, making away with just Poppy Flowers, despite this being home to many other valuable masterpieces. Following the failure at Cairo airport, the Egyptian government launched an investigation into how the painting could have been stolen for a second time. Some critics have argued that the thieves must have had some inside help. Or, at best, the museum’s security was extremely lax and unprofessional.

Who stole the Van Gogh or where it is now both remain one of the major mysteries of the art world. The Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has put up a reward for the painting’s recovery. That reward, however, is just $175,000. The painting is estimated to be worth as much as $55 million, with its value going up every year it remains missing.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Did Rembrandt put himself into this lost masterpiece? Some critics think so. Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee would fetch $10 million at auction, if only it hadn’t been stolen in the ‘art crime of the century’ back in 1980

If you go into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, you will find several empty frames hanging on the wall. It’s been this way since the spring of 1980. That was when a group of thieves made off with 13 works of art. Of them, Rembrandt’s depiction of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee is one of the most striking, if not the most valuable. According to the most conservative estimates, it would probably fetch at least $10 million at auction.

Rembrandt van Rijn is easily one of the most famous of the so-called Dutch Masters, painters who created their masterpieces during the Dutch Golden Age of culture. He was famous for his use of light and color but only ever painted one seascape. That seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, depicts the incident recorded in the Gospel of Saint Mark. In the painting, Jesus is shown calming the storm while his 12 disciples sit in panic. Curiously, there is an additional man on the boat and many art historians believe that this is Rembrandt himself. The inclusion of this self-portrait only adds to the value of the work, something the thieves who struck that March morning surely knew.

It was a normal morning at the Boston museum. Then, out of nowhere, two men posing as policemen turned up. They talked their way inside and then, once inside, tied up the security guards. Over the next hour, they made off with 13 works of art, all of them originally purchased by the noted collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. It was, the FBI noted, the single biggest theft of private property in American history. Indeed, it’s estimated that the thieves got away with $500 million worth of art. The museum put up a substantial reward, now standing at $10 million. However, the crime remains unsolved and Rembrandt’s acclaimed seascape remains missing.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Claude Monet loved London, though sadly his painting of his favourite bridge is missing, probably for good. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Charing Cross Bridge, Claude Monet’s homage to London in the fog, was stolen from a Dutch museum in 2012 and remains missing

It was a crime that shocked art lovers around the world, none more so than admirers of Claude Monet. Two of the acclaimed impressionist’s works were stolen in a 2012 heist in the Netherlands. To make matters worse, it’s highly unlikely the paintings, including most notably Charing Cross Bridge, will ever be recovered. Indeed, many fans have resigned themselves to the fact that Monet’s missing masterpiece was actually burned in an oven in the summer of 2013.

The story, investigators believe, actually started on the dating app Tinder. At some point in 2012, a man and a woman in Romania struck up a conversation that eventually turned to talk of making millions by stealing valuable artworks. So, when the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam opened a new show of modern and contemporary art in the autumn of 2012, the pair saw their chance. According to the police, they broke in at around 3 am in morning. Though they triggered the supposed state-of-the-art alarm system, by the time officers arrived on the scene, the thieves were gone. As were seven paintings, including the valuable Charing Cross Bridge, Monet’s depiction of the crossing over the River Thames in London in the fog.

No exact price has been placed on the stolen works, though some experts say they could have fetched “hundreds of millions” on the black market. However, it’s likely they never even reached a buyer. When police identified their prime suspects and swooped in July 2013, the mother of one of the thieves revealed that she had burned several paintings in order to protect her son. Though she subsequently backtracked on the claim, police did find traces of paint and even nails from vintage frames in her fireplace. All the clues point to the missing Monet being lost for good.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Only one half of the invaluable altarpiece panel has been recovered. Wikimedia Commons.

5. The Just Judges, part of Jan van Eyck’s invaluable masterpiece has often been cited as the most important piece of missing art

It’s one of the great mysteries of the art world: a stolen masterpiece, an expert, career criminal, a deathbed confession and a real sense of the unknown. Indeed, while The Just Judges is just one part of a larger artwork, its disappearance in 1934 has confounded the authorities, as well as many amateur sleuths, ever since. And, since the man who most people believe stole it revealed that he hid it in a mystery location, to this day, people continue to search for it in the hope of earning a fortune.

The Just Judges was painted between 1430 and 1432 by the Dutchman Jan van Eyck (or possibly by his brother Hubert). It was one panel of a large altarpiece and shows the portraits of several notable men from the time, including Philip the Good. Along with the rest of the work, the panel was installed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent, exactly how the artist wished. On one night in April 1934, however, it was stolen. In its place, the thief had left a note. That note stated, “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.” Was the thief a German nationalist who was still angry that his country had been forced to hand back the art it had looted during the First World War? Or was this a red herring, designed to put the police off the trail?

Before long, the Bishop of Ghent received a letter. Here, the thief demanded a huge ransom for the paintings. The negotiations dragged on and, to show he was serious, the thief returned half of the panel. However, the second half remained missing. Then, in November 1934, a known art thief called Arsene Goedertier died. On his deathbed, he confessed that he had stolen The Just Judges. What’s more, he revealed that “it rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public”. What this tantalizing clue meant, nobody knew. Even today, people still debate, with a number of theories having been put forward – and disproved – over the years.

To this day, the city of Ghent police department still keeps the case file open. Since the artwork belongs to the city, if anyone does find it (and some experts argue that it was probably destroyed), they are unlikely to get a big financial reward. They will, however, be national heroes in Belgium and legends in the art world.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Manet’s portrait of an unknown gentleman was stolen back in 1990. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet was snatched from a Boston museum while the city was celebrating St. Patrick’s day and its whereabouts remains a mystery

If you want to carry out an audacious art heist in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, then there’s no better time than St. Patrick’s Day. It was on that day in 1990, when almost all of the city was celebrating their Irish heritage, that Chez Tortini, along with a number of other artworks were taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. As with all the other works, the whereabouts of Edouard Manet’s famous portrait of an unidentified gentleman remains a mystery, despite the fact the gallery is offering a $5 million reward for its safe return.

It’s believed that Manet completed this piece in 1879 or 1880. Apart from that, little is known about it. Above all, while it’s made clear that the portrait is set in the Café Tortoni de Paris, a favorite hangout of the French realist, the subject of the work is never revealed. That is, nobody knows for sure whether it’s a portrait of one of Manet’s friends, relatives or simply a stranger he wanted to paint. Quite possibly, the man in question was a fellow Bohemian, quite possibly an artist or a writer. But what is for certain is that Chez Tortini is missing, presumed gone for good.

According to the FBI, the painting, along with the 12 other works stolen from the Boston Museum in 1990, were offered up for sale on the black market in Philadelphia ten years later. The Bureau has their suspects, but so far, nobody has admitted to knowing the whereabouts of the Manet or of any of the other works. What’s more, since one of the main suspects, a known Boston gangster with the connections needed to pull off such a job, died in 1991, it seems likely Chez Tortini will remain missing for the foreseeable future.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Did this Picasso painting end up in a Paris trashcan? Quite probably. Wikimedia Commons.

7. Le pigeon aux petits pois by Pablo Picasso may have ended up in a Paris trashcan after thieves who stole it got cold feet and panicked

During the second decade of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was highly prolific indeed. The Spaniard produced a number of notable works, among them Le pigeon aux petit pois (The pigeon with peas). The 1911 work was on display at the Museum of Modern Art for the City of Paris – a city Picasso called home for some time – until it was stolen in a 2010 robbery. To date, none of the works taken that day have been recovered.

Picasso’s painting was stolen, along with five other works, one night in May 2010, when the popular museum was closed. The CCTV was working, and the video footage from the night show a masked man smashing a window, walking through the gallery’s corridors and taking five works from the walls. While it’s clear the thief acted alone, investigators also believe that he was stealing to order, with the mysterious buyer obviously keen to get their hands on a valuable Picasso.

Before long, police working the case believed they were hot on the trail of both the thief and the buyer. Apparently, the thief knew this too. When officers eventually arrested their prime suspect, he confirmed that, yes, he had stolen Le pigeon aux petits pois, he no longer had the painting in his possession. In fact, in a panic, he had thrown all the stolen paintings into a public trashcan shortly after taking them. When police searched the trashcan he directed them to, they found nothing. For the crime, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Most investigators don’t believe that the paintings were thrown away. Instead, they believe that they are still out there. However, since any attempt to sell them, even on the black market, is likely to attract a huge amount of attention, it’s probable that Picasso’s work will stay hidden away somewhere until someone makes a mistake and reveals the location or simply hands the stolen works back, as the French art world has politely requested they do.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Van Gogh’s self-portrait was quite possibly lost in a bombing raid. Wikimedia Commons.

8. The Painter on his Way to Work was van Gogh’s statement about his time as a struggling artist, but was it destroyed in a wartime bombing raid or is it still out there?

Vincent van Gogh was one of the most prolific artists of his generation. Despite – or perhaps because of – his mental illness and other worries, the Dutchman produced more than 900 paintings, in addition to 1,100 drawings and sketches. Remarkably, of these, just six are ‘missing in action’. Of those lost to the art world, The Painter on his Way to Work is one of the most notable, not least because it’s a self-portrait, with the painting giving a fascinating insight not just into his routine as a struggling artist but into his state of mind as well.

Painted in 1888, the painting shows van Gogh himself trudging through the countryside of the south of France, sketchpad or canvas under his arm. According to the artist himself, the work was just “a rough sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, props and canvas on the sunny road to Tarascon.” To art historians, however, there’s more here than meets the eye. The vacant eye-sockets and the darkened fields in the background hint at the turmoil and instability that would afflict van Gogh towards the end of his life. Indeed, within two years of The Painter on his Way to Work being completed, the Dutchman had killed himself.

The painting was held in the Historical Art Museum of Magdeburg, Germany. When the Second World War broke out, however, it was moved to some old salt mines in Austria, to be stored underground for safekeeping. The mine was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, with numerous pieces of art destroyed. However, some historians believe that some works might have been taken out by senior Nazis and kept in their own private collections. For that reason, the Monuments Men Foundations lists The Painter on his Way to Work as “missing” rather than lost for good. If it does turn up – and the discovery of more than 1,200 supposedly ‘lost’ artworks in an apartment in Munich suggests that there might be hope yet – it could fetch a record amount at auction.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
This erotic art masterpiece was so shocking the Pope tried to have it destroyed. Wikimedia Commons.

9.The 16 Pleasures by Marcantonio Raimondi was so sexually scandalous that the Pope tried to destroy all the copies, though whether he succeeded or not is up for debate

The world’s first collection of pornography wasn’t so much lost or stolen as confiscated. Marcantonio Raimondi’s series of erotic engravings both titillated and scandalized polite society at the peak of the Renaissance. In fact, it shocked the Catholic Church so much that they tried to buy up all the copies of the first edition of the work and have them all destroyed. Whether the Church succeeded in its puritanical mission, or whether one or more copies of the original survived the puritanical purge and are still out there, remains a source of considerable scholarly debate to this day.

The artwork, entitled The Sixteen Pleasures, or sometimes referred to as I Modi (The Ways) was actually a series of engravings created by Raimondi and then released in 1524. All of the elaborate engravings depicted different sexual acts and positions. Significantly, while other artists had made similar erotic works for private viewing, Raimondi intended his to be seen by the public. When Pope Clement VII learned of this, he was incensed. Wielding his Papal authority, he ordered his soldiers to locate and then destroy every set of the engravings. According to most accounts, they succeeded, and the Pope even had the artist briefly imprisoned.

But that doesn’t mean that the puritans had the last word. Within a few years, a second edition had been published. This time, the engravings were accompanied by erotic poems. What’s more, Raimondi’s legacy lived on. In the 17th century, enterprising printers at Oxford University in England made copies of their own, bringing The Sixteen Pleasures to a new generation. These examples still survive today. However, the hunt for the original 1524 artworks goes on.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Hitler’s favorite painting was stolen twice and is now possibly missing for good. Wikimedia Commons.

10. The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg was Hitler’s favorite painting and was stolen twice, and it still remains a missing masterpiece of its time

It was reportedly Hitler’s favorite painting. Painted in 1839, Carl Spitzweg’s The Poor Poet was very much a product of its time. In it, the artist satirizes the bohemian gentlemen who felt they needed to suffer for their art. In its day, it was hugely popular, transforming Spitzweg from a pharmacist who painted in his spare time, to one of the most acclaimed artists in Germany. And while the Fuhrer’s admiration undoubtedly tarnished its reputation – after all, Hitler hardly had good taste in art, despite his pretenses – it remained popular. So popular, in fact, that it has been stolen not once but twice.

On the first occasion, in 1976, a German performance artist stole The Poor Poet from off the walls of the New National Gallery in Berlin. He was chased by the museum guards but managed to get into his car and drive away. He then drove to a working-class neighborhood of Berlin and hung the famous painting up on the wall of an immigrant family’s home. The stunt was designed to highlight the discrimination Turkish newcomers were facing in German society at the time. Regardless of whether or not he succeeded, the painting was quickly recovered and returned to the museum.

The painting was stolen again in 1989, however. This time, a visitor in a fake wheelchair managed to take this painting and another similarly small work by Spitzweg off the walls and smuggle them out right under the nose of the security guards. This time around, there was no happy ending. Neither of the paintings has been recovered. Moreover, since both works are compact and easy to hide, and since there was no CCTV back in 1989, it’s likely that Hitler’s favorite painting will remain missing, presumed lost for good. And, what’s more, these two aren’t the only Spitzweg paintings whose location is unknown. In all, some 36 works from the German artist’s vast output remain missing, almost all of them having been stolen.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Did the mafia steal this massive masterpiece back in 1969? Wikimedia Commons.

11. Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio has been top of the FBI’s most-wanted stolen works of arts since it was taken from a Sicilian church in 1969

For more than 40 years, detectives and amateur sleuths alike have been trying to find Caravaggio’s famous altarpiece. Not for nothing has this topped the list of the FBI’s “Most-wanted stolen works of art” ever since it was snatched from a church in Sicily back in 1969. Some investigators, including one notable journalist, claim that they have come close to getting the Caravaggio back. For now, however, it remains lost. And, what’s more, some believe that it may have been lost for good.

The huge artwork – it measures six square metres – was painted by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio back in 1609. In accordance with the terms of the commission, as soon as the artist had completed the work in Rome, it was sent to Palermo in Sicily. There Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence was placed above the altar. It remained there for hundreds of years. But then, in October 1969, two unknown men broke into the church, cut the painting out of its wooden frame and vanished, taking the masterpiece with them.

The theft made headlines around the world. The Italian government tried in vain to find it. At the same time, authorities and auction houses around the world were put on high alert. However, the Caravaggio has never been found. Most theories have it that the local Sicilian Mafia was behind the theft. Perhaps a mob boss ordered it to be taken, or maybe a lowly mafia crew member took it to give to a superior as a gift. Nobody can say for sure. Even when a mafia informant came forward to admit that the organized family had been behind the theft but the painting had since been destroyed, the authorities weren’t completely convinced.

It could be that Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence is hidden away in the home of a wealthy private collector. Or maybe it was fed to pigs as one mafia informer claimed. But if it does turn up, there can be no doubt that it would be the biggest discovery in the art world for decades. Plus, the painting would likely fetch more than $20 million at a legitimate auction.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
This work by an acclaimed Dutch artist was taken in an audacious heist. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Landscape with an Obelisk was one of 13 paintings stolen in one swoop and the $10 million work remains unaccounted for

For many years, Landscape with an Obelisk was attributed to the Italian master Rembrandt. After much investigation, however, it was determined that it was actually the work of Govert Flinck. Compared to the Italian, the Dutchman is quite little-known outside of his own country. And, sadly, this could remain the case, especially since this famous work of his was stolen from a Boston gallery in 1990 and is still missing.

The oil-on-wood painting, which depicts a pastoral landscape with a mysterious obelisk in the background, was finished in 1638. While it was inspired by the artist’s time in Rome, and in particular his time perfecting his craft in the ancient ruins of Tivoli just outside of the city, the exact location depicted is not clear. Regardless, at some point, it was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the most notable American collectors and cultural philanthropists of the last century. She left it to the city of Boston and it hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And here it remained until March 1980, when the largest art theft in world history happened.

Landscape with Obelisk was one of 13 paintings stolen that day. The total worth of the haul is believed to be around $500 million. The Flinck landscape on its own is worth in the region of $10 million, even if it lost some value after it was proven not to be the work of Rembrandt. Over the years, the finger of blame has been pointed at the Boston underworld. But even if local gangsters were behind the famous theft, it’s highly unlikely that they would risk trying to sell their half-a-billion-dollar haul. As such, Flinck’s most famous work will remain hidden from the public eye indefinitely, perhaps forever.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Freud’s paintings have fetched millions, but this portrait has been missing for decades. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Francis Bacon by Lucien Freud remains lost, despite the artist’s best efforts at persuading the thieves who took it more than 30 years ago to hand it back

Since several of his paintings have been sold for record-breaking amounts, including one that sold at auction for $142 million, the theft of a Lucien Freud portrait from a Berlin gallery 30 years ago is understandably one of the greatest art mysteries of modern times. The fact that the stolen painting was a portrait Freud painting by one of his fellow artist Francis Bacon makes the case even more intriguing. To date, despite the best efforts of the British government, the Berlin police and even the artist himself, Freud’s work remains missing.

It was in 1988 when the British Council organized an exhibition of Freud’s celebrated work in Berlin. The portrait of Bacon was sent to the German city on loan from the Tate in London. The exhibition had only been open a short while when the painting was taken off the wall and spitted away in an audacious robbery in broad daylight. Within a year, Freud received a ransom note from the thieves. However, according to the artist himself, the Berlin police dithered and the agreed exchange never took place. After that, all contact with the thieves was lost and the painting was gone for good.

More than a decade later, frustrated by the lack of developments, Freud went back to Berlin and put ‘Wanted’ posters up around the city. He even offered a reward of around $150,000 for information leading to the portrait’s return. Again, however, he had no luck. In London, the Tate Gallery remains confident that the painting will show up one day. Indeed, the work is still listed in its catalog, with the disclaimer ‘not on display’ the only hint to suggest that it hasn’t been seen for years. Bacon himself was less hopeful. Before he died in 1992, he commented on the case. “Most likely it was burnt,” he says of the lost painting.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
This missing masterpiece is believed to be a self-portrait of Rembrandt. Wikimedia Commons.

14. Portrait of a Young Man is believed to be a unique self-portrait by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael, making it an invaluable missing work of art

Before and during the Second World War, the Nazis and their collaborators amassed a vast collection of stolen art. Some of it was returned to its rightful owners once peace returned to Europe. Some works remain the subject of complex legal arguments over such rightful ownership. And some paintings were stolen and have yet to be located. Of the latter group, no work is probably more valuable than Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael. Indeed, if it were to turn up tomorrow and be put up for auction, it would easily fetch more than $100 million.

The painting most probably dates back to 1514. It was, most experts agree, the work of Raphael, a Master of the High Renaissance period. While the subject of the portrait is not specifically identified, the general consensus is that it is Raphael himself. Given the artist, it was given pride of place in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. And so, when war broke out in 1939, the museum curators hid it from the invading Nazis. Sadly, it was found by the Gestapo. The Nazi-appointed governor of the region, Hans Frank, took it with him to Berlin but then brought it back to hang in his palace in Krakow. It’s here where it was last seen. It’s likely Frank took it with him when he tried to escape following the defeat of the Nazis. However, when he was arrested in May 1945, there was no sign of the Raphael. Neither could the painting be found in the years after the war.

To this day, the exact whereabouts of Portrait of a Young man remains a mystery. It could be that Frank took his secret to the grave with him; he was executed for crimes against humanity in October of 1946. Either way, the work is almost undeniably the most important painting to have gone missing since 1940, even if we don’t know for sure what it looks like in color, since only black and white photographs of it exist.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
While Oxford partied, a thief made off with this Cezanne masterpiece. Wikimedia Commons.

15. View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cezanne was stolen in a perfectly-executed heist while the city of Oxford partied into the new millennium

The French artist Paul Cezanne never got around to signing or dating his landscape of the town of Auvers-su-Oise. Because of this, many art historians believe that the work was left unfinished. But that didn’t make it any less attractive to the thieves who struck on the eve of the Millennium. While the rest of Oxford was watching a fireworks display, the criminal – or criminals – broke into the city’s Ashmolean Museum and made off with the painting.

As Britain woke up from its big party the night before, news of the heist spread fast. It was revealed that the thief broke in through a skylight and used a rope to rappel down to the gallery floor. They then used a smoke bomb to obstruct the security cameras and then set off the fire alarm. All went to plan: the museum’s security guards waited for the fire brigade to arrive, giving the thief enough time to find the Cezanne, take it off the walls and then leave the museum the way he came in. The whole crime took less than ten minutes to carry out.

Police were soon on the scene. Since the same gallery was home to several other valuable works, investigators concluded that the thief stole the painting to order, making the task of recovering it even more difficult. So far, no trace has been found, either of the thief or of View of Auvers-Sur-Oise. It’s believed that the painting would now be worth in excess of $10 million, making it one of the most valuable works of art ever stolen in Britain. Partly as a result of this single crime, the UK government passed a new law, deeming thefts of items deemed part of the British “national heritage” to be worthy of longer prison sentences than normal thefts.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Did this French masterpiece end up in the collection of a senior Nazi? Wikimedia Commons.

16. En Canot by Jean Metzinger might have been stolen by a high-ranking Nazi, or it may have been burned a lot of other art the evil regime believed to be ‘degenerate’

Famously, the Nazis were quite hypocritical when it came to art. On the one hand, they were quick to condemn works painted by Jewish artists or by other so-called ‘degenerates’. On the other, however, they were more than happy to confiscate works by such artists, especially those worth large sums of money. Indeed, several prominent members of the Nazi regime would routinely ‘confiscate’ paintings and other works of art in the name of public decency, only to add them to their own personal collections. Which is precisely what’s likely to have happened to Jean Metzinger’s modernist masterpiece En Canot.

Frenchman Metzinger produced the piece in 1913. It depicts a woman, painted in a surrealist fashion, sitting in a canoe. Around her, waves are meant to give the viewer an unsettling feeling. The work painting was displayed in Paris that same summer and three years later it was acquired by Georg Muche. He agreed for En Canot to be displayed in a prominent gallery in Berlin, where it was then promoted to the German National Gallery. However, when the Nazis began their clampdown on art, it was confiscated. The painting was last seen in 1938, shown as part of the Degenerate Art Exhibition which toured Germany for three years.

When the Nazi’s infamous traveling exhibition came to an end, many of the featured works were auctioned off to buyers in Switzerland, with all the money going to fund the regime’s war preparations. En Canot was not among them. It may be that a senior Nazi stepped in and took it for themselves – Hermann Goering, after all, took works by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne for his private collection, despite both artists having been labeled as ‘degenerate’ by the regime. Alternatively, it might have simply been destroyed. If it is ever found, Metzinger’s missing work would likely fetch more than $3 million at auction, not before it sparked a debate over who actually owns it, however.

These Famous Works of Art Were Lost or Stolen and Are Still Missing Today
Klimt’s portrait of an unknown lady was stolen in a remarkable heist. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Portrait of a Lady by Gustav Klimt went missing from an Italian gallery in 1997 – or it may have been taken and replaced with a forgery many months before that

Thanks to his massively popular – and widely-reproduced – work The Kiss, Gustav Klimt is one of the best-known painters of all time. That also means that as well as being popular with the viewing public, the Austrian’s paintings are also popular with art thieves, as an intriguing case from 1997 shows. It was like something straight out of a heist movie, with forgeries, ransom notes and intrigue extending all the way to the top of the Italian political system.

The painting in question, Portrait of a Lady, was produced by Klimt in 1917. Later analysis revealed that it was painted on top of an earlier portrait of one of the artist’s lovers who had died in tragic circumstances. The Galleria Ricci-Oddi in the Italian city of Piacenza acquired the painting as early as 1925 and it remained one of its highlights right up until February of 1997. Then, when the museum was due to host a special exhibition in order to celebrate the re-opening of one of its galleries after renovation, Portrait of a Lady vanished.

Several months later, Italian police made a startling discovery. They found a secret workshop where skilfully-made forgeries of the Klimt portrait had been produced. It’s now believed that the painting stolen on the eve of the museum’s special exhibition might not have even been the original. It could well be that Portrait of a Lady was taken and replaced with a forgery several months before the high-profile theft, with the second crime staged to distract from the earlier one. So far, no firm leads have been found, even though the thieves purportedly got in contact with the former Italian premier Bettino Craxi at one point. The Klimt remains missing.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“What It Takes to Recover a Stolen Work of Art”. Leila Amineddoleh. Artsy. Oct 8, 2016

“Van Gogh stolen from Egyptian museum for the second time.” The Telegraph, August 2010.

“Romanian says her tale of burning art treasures was a lie.” Express News, July 2013.

“The world’s most expensive stolen paintings.” BBC.

“‘Guilty’ verdict on the spectacular 2010 Paris art theft.” DW Arts, February 2017.

“Painter on His Way to Work.” Startle, Rogue Art History.

“20 Incredible Works of Art that are Lost Forever”. Steve. History Collection. August 5, 2019

“16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art”. Trista. History Collection. October 22, 2018

“Carl Spitzweg: The Poor Poet.” Leopold Museum.

“Former mobster may hold clue to recovery of stolen Caravaggio.” The Guardian.

“Want your stolen portrait back? Bring us £100,000 cash: What gangsters told Francis Bacon after taking his famous likeness, painted by Lucian Freud, from Berlin art gallery 30 years ago.” Daily Mail, May 2018.

“The 10 most-wanted missing or stolen paintings.” The Telegraph, April 2016.

“The Cezanne Stolen in the Perfect Art Heist for a New Millennium.” The Daily Beast, July 2017.

“A Museum Is Offering $10 Million To Help Solve the Mystery Behind the Biggest Art Heist of All Time”. Business Insider. Jacob Shamsian. Dec 26, 2017.

“Great Art Heists of History: The Ghent Altarpiece and its Missing Panel”. Benjamin Blake Evemy. MutualArt. Jul 30, 2021

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