ART: Our Favorite Art Heists

by Raymond Herrera

When we think of art we usually picture the artist toiling over his work, which ultimately ends up before groups of pretty, well dressed, intelligent people; maybe at a fancy opening drinking champagne or good cocktails, and enjoying fancy Hors d’oeuvres at a Couch Sessions event. Or possibly a Saturday afternoon stroll though the galleries. Works are collected, hung, exhibited, and enjoyed. Sometimes the work connects so well with the public that the objects themselves become extremely valuable, to the point where man will do anything to acquire them. Including using force.

We explore one of the many dark sides of the art world… the heist. Sometimes elegant, sometimes brute, there is no doubt that this type of thirst, in a strange way, holds a romantic place for art lovers. Hollywood has helped us visualize the romanticism around the “profession” in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, and Danny Boyle’s Trance. Sometimes the works are lost in the maze of the black market, sometimes pieces are destroyed or damaged, and sometimes these thefts raise the value and allure of a piece. With all of our modern technology one would think art heists are a thing of the past, but there’s always one more clever than the last. These among some of the more notable jooks.



Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

To this day its the largest art theft ever. On March 18, 1990, thieves stole 13 pieces worth $300 million, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum In Boston. Among the pieces stolen were: Vermeer‘s The Concert (the most valuable stolen painting in the world); Rembrandt paintings The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only existing seascape, which we covered here last year); and paintings and drawings by PicassoManet, Edgar DegasGovaert Flinck. A reward of $5,000,000 has been offered for information leading to their return, and a lucky dime dropper may be collecting their share soon enough. Last month the FBI claimed to know who did it. Allegedly inexperienced art thieves dressed as police officers rushed the museum slice and grab style tearing pieces from their frames with blades. The names of suspects have not been released yet.



The Scream, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

In 1994, Edvard Munch‘s The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, and held for ransom. The thieves left a note that read, “Thanks for the poor security.” They were later caught including one guy who had been nabbed before for trying to steal another of Munch’s paintings, Vampire.

In 2004 a different version of the painting was stolen from the Munch Museum. Two years later, the paintings in that heist, which also included Madonna, were recovered minimally damaged.

A pastel version (pastel, 1895) of this piece sold at auction at Sotheby’s  for a record breaking $119,922,600 at Impressionist and Modern Art Auction in May of 2012 to financier Leon Black, which to date is the highest price paid at auction for a painting.



The Paris Museum of Modern Art, 2010

Without warning from the alarm system, IN 2010!!, where extremely high tech anti-theft systems exist in abundance, the Paris Museum of Modern Art was robbed of several priceless works. A thief cut through a gate padlock, broke a window, and stole 5 paintings from the museum. The alarm wasn’t working, and I wonder if the guards were either. Stolen pieces include Pastoral, by Henri Matisse; Olive Tree Near Estaque, by Georges Braque; Woman with a Fan, by one of my personal favorite painters Amedeo Modigliani; Still Life with Chandeliers by Fernand Leger; and Le pigeon aux petits-pois by Picasso.


Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory was infamous for selling very convincing forgeries. Good enough to fool experts. Ok, not quite a robbery, but in concept what de Hory created for 30 years amounted to theft. He sold fake paintings by some of the best known artists in the world including: Picasso, Marc Chagall, Matisse, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec. Even experienced art buyers fell for the fakes. Collectors now pay high prices for “authentic” de Hory fakes. Forgeries of his forgeries are being sold by other forgers. In the end the master forger wound up penniless and committed  suicide in 1976. There are rumors that he faked his death. He told his story to Clifford Irving who wrote the biography: Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. Irving would be an expert on the subject after doing a bid at the Federal Correctional Complex in PA for having been the author of a fake “autobiography” of Howard Hughes.


National Museum of Iraq

The invasion of Iraq cost the lives of and injured many American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and destroyed property. In the chaos of the poorly planned aftermath of the invasion, amongst the fighting, looting, and confusion, an art heist of the National Museum of Iraq took place in 2003. An estimated 170,000 items were initially believed missing.  Of those taken around 15,000 items, most of them fragments of pieces, remained unaccounted for.



The  Mona Lisa

In August 1911, more than 100 years ago, a museum worker at the Louvre, which held the painting, walked out with one of the least talked about painting of all time, (I kid) the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, 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. After a two year search 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 was returned.