Art Theft - Famous Cases of Art Theft

Famous Cases of Art Theft

See also: List of famous stolen paintings and Aydın Dikmen
Case of art theft Dates Notes References
Louvre August 21, 1911

Perhaps the most famous case of art theft occurred on August 21, 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who was caught after two years.

Panels from the Ghent Altarpiece 1934 Two panels of the fifteenth century Ghent Altarpiece, painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck were stolen in 1934, of which only one was recovered shortly after the theft. The other one (lower left of the opened altarpiece, known as De Rechtvaardige Rechters i.e. The Just Judges), has never been recovered, as the presumable thief (Arsène Goedertier), who had sent some anonymous letters asking for ransom, died before revealing the whereabouts of the painting.
Nazi theft and looting of Europe during the Second World War 1939–1945

The Nazi plundering of artworks was carried out by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzen Gebiete). In occupied France, the Jeu de Paume Art Museum in Paris was used as a central storage and sorting depot for looted artworks from museums and private art collections throughout France pending distribution to various persons and places in Germany. The Nazis confiscated tens of thousands of works from their legitimate Jewish owners. Some were confiscated by the Allies at the end of the war. Many ended up in the hands of respectable collectors and institutions. Jewish ownership of some of the art was codified into the Geneva conventions.

Quedlinburg medieval artifacts 1945

In 1945, an American soldier Joe Meador stole eight medieval artifacts found in a mineshaft near Quedlinburg which had been hidden by local members of the clergy from Nazi looters in 1943.

Returning to the United States, the artifacts remained in Meador's possession until his death in 1980. He made no attempt to sell them. When his older brother and sister attempted to sell a 9th century manuscript and 16th century prayerbook in 1990, the two were charged. However, the charges were dismissed after it was declared the statute of limitations had expired.

Alfred Stieglitz Gallery 1946

Three paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe were stolen while on display at the art gallery of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. The paintings were eventually found by O'Keeffe following their purchase by the Princeton Gallery of Fine Arts for $35,000 in 1975. O'Keeffe sued the museum for their return and, despite a six-year statute of limitations on art theft, a state appellate court ruled in her favor on July 27, 1979.

Dulwich College Picture Gallery December 30, 1966

A total of eight Old Master paintings—three each by Rembrandt and Peter Paul Reubens, and one each by Adam Elsheimer and Gerrit Dou—were removed from this London gallery. The paintings were appraised at a combined value of £1.5 million (then US$4.2 million). The thieves entered the galley by cutting a panel out of an unused door. All of the paintings were recovered by January 4, 1967.

University of Michigan 1967

Sketches by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and British sculptor Henry Moore, valued at $200,000, were stolen while on display in a travelling art exhibit organized by the University of Michigan. The sketches were eventually found by federal agents in a California auction house on January 24, 1969, although no arrests were made.

Izmir Archaeology Museum July 24, 1969

Various artifacts and other art worth $5 million were stolen from the Izmir Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, Turkey on July 24, 1969 (during which a night watchman was killed by the unidentified thieves). Turkish police soon arrested a German citizen who, at the time of his arrest on August 1, had 128 stolen items in his car.

Stephen Hahn Art Gallery November 17, 1969

Art thieves stole seven paintings, including works by Cassatt, Monet, Pissarro and Rouault, from art dealer Stephen Hahn's Madison Avenue art gallery at an estimated value of $500,000 on the night of November 17, 1969. Incidentally, Stephen Hahn had been discussing art theft with other art dealers as the theft was taking place.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts September 4, 1972

On September 4, 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was the site of the largest art theft in Canadian history, when armed thieves made off with jewellery, figurines and 18 paintings worth a total of $2 million (approximately $10.9 million today), including works by Delacroix, Gainsborough and a rare Rembrandt landscape. The works have never been recovered. In 2003, the Globe and Mail estimated that the Rembrandt alone would be worth $1 million.

Russborough House 1974–2002

Russborough House, the Irish estate of the late Sir Alfred Beit, has been robbed four times since 1974.

In 1974, members of the IRA, including Rose Dugdale, bound and gagged the Beits, making off with nineteen paintings worth an estimated £8 million. A deal to exchange the paintings for prisoners was offered, but the paintings were recovered after a raid on a rented cottage in Cork, and those responsible were caught and imprisoned.

In 1986, a Dublin gang led by Martin Cahill stole eighteen paintings worth an estimated £30 million in total. Sixteen paintings were subsequently recovered, with a further two still missing to this day (2006).

Two paintings worth an estimated £3 million were stolen by three armed men in 2001. One of these, a Gainsborough had been previously stolen by Cahill's gang. Both paintings were recovered in September 2002.

A mere two to three days after the recovery of the two paintings stolen in 2001, the house was robbed for the fourth time, with five paintings taken. These paintings were recovered in December 2002 during a search of a house in Clondalkin.

Kanakria mosaics and the looting of Cypriot Orthodox Churches following the invasion of Cyprus 1974

Following the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 by Turkey, and the occupation of the northern part of the island churches belonging to the Cypriot Orthodox Church have been looted in what is described as "…one of the most systematic examples of the looting of art since World War II". Several high profile cases have made headline news on the international scene. Most notable was the case of the Kanakaria mosaics, 6th century AD frescoes that were removed from the original church, trafficked to the USA and offered for sale to a museum for the sum of US$20,000,000. These were subsequently recovered by the Orthodox Church following a court case in Indianapolis.

Picasso works in the Palais des Papes January 31, 1976

On January 31, 1976, 118 paintings, drawings and other works by Picasso were stolen from an exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France.

L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art April 15, 1983

On April 15, 1983, more than 200 rare clocks and watches were stolen from the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. Among the stolen watches was one known as the Marie-Antoinette, the crown jewel of the watch collection made by the French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet on order by Queen Marie Antoinette, it is estimated to be worth $30 million. The heist is considered to be the largest robbery in Israel. The man responsible for the robbery was Naaman Diller. On November 18, 2008, French and Israeli police officials discovered half of the cache of stolen timepieces in two bank safes in France. Of the 106 rare timepieces stolen in 1983, 96 have now been recovered. Among those recovered was the rare Marie-Antoinette watch. In 2010, Nilli Shomrat, Diller's widow was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and given a five-year suspended sentence for possession of stolen property.

Musée Marmottan Monet October 28, 1985

On October 28, 1985, during daylight hours, five masked gunmen with pistols at the security and visitors entered the museum and stole nine paintings from the collection. Among them were Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant) by Claude Monet, the painting from which the Impressionism movement took from. Aside from that also stolen 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 also by Monet, Bather Sitting on a Rock and Portrait of Monet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Woman at the Ball by Berthe Morisot, and Portrait of Monet by Sei-ichi Naruse and were valued at $12 million. The paintings were later recovered in Corsica in 1990.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum March 18, 1990

The largest art theft in world history occurred in Boston on March 18, 1990 when thieves stole 13 pieces, collectively worth $300 million, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. A reward of $5,000,000 is still offered for information leading to their return.

The pieces stolen were: Vermeer's The Concert, which is the most valuable stolen painting in the world; two Rembrandt paintings, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman in Black; A Rembrandt self-portrait etching; Manet's Chez Tortoni; five drawings by Edgar Degas; Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk; an ancient Chinese Qu; and a finial that once stood atop a flag from Napoleon's Army.

The Scream
(National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design)
February 12, 1994

In 1994, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, and held for ransom. It was recovered later in the year.

Kunsthalle Schirn July 28, 1994

Three paintings were stolen from a German gallery in 1994, two of them belonging to the Tate Gallery in London. In 1998, Tate conceived of Operation Cobalt, the secret buyback of the paintings from the thieves. The paintings were recovered in 2000 and 2002, resulting in a profit of several million pounds for Tate, because of prior insurance payments.

Mather Brown's Thomas Jefferson July 28, 1994

While being stored in preparation to be reproduced, the portrait of Thomas Jefferson painted by artist Mather Brown in 1786, was stolen from a Boston warehouse on July 28, 1994. Authorities apprehended the thieves and recovered the painting on May 24, 1996 following a protracted FBI investigation.

Cooperman Art Theft hoax 1999

In July 1999, Los Angeles ophthalmologist Steven Cooperman was convicted of insurance fraud for arranging the theft of two paintings, a Picasso and a Monet, from his home in an attempt to collect $17.5 million in insurance.

Nationalmuseum December 22, 2000

One Rembrandt and two Renoir paintings were stolen from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden, when three armed thieves broke into the museum and managed to flee using a boat, moored in front of the museum. By 2001, the police had recovered one of the Renoirs and by March 2005 they had recovered the second one in Los Angeles. That year, in September, they recovered the Rembrandt in a sting operation in a hotel in Copenhagen.

Stephane Breitwieser 2001

Stephane Breitwieser admitted to stealing 238 artworks and other exhibits from museums travelling around Europe; his motive was to build a vast personal collection. In January 2005, Breitwieser was given a 26-month prison sentence. Unfortunately, over 60 paintings, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Watteau, François Boucher, and Corneille de Lyon were chopped up by Breitwieser's mother, Mireille Stengel, in what police believe was an effort to remove incriminating evidence against her son.

Van Gogh Museum December 8, 2002

The two paintings Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen by Vincent van Gogh were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Two men were convicted for the theft, but the paintings were never recovered. The FBI Art Crime Team estimates their combined value at 30 million US$.

The Scream and Madonna
(Munch Museum)
August 22, 2004

On August 22, 2004, another original of The Scream was stolen—Munch painted several versions of The Scream—together with Munch's Madonna. This time the thieves targeted the version held by the Munch Museum, from where the two paintings were stolen at gunpoint and during opening hours. Both paintings were recovered on August 31, 2006, relatively undamaged. Three men have already been convicted, but the gunmen remain at large. If caught, they could face up to eight years in prison.

Munch paintings theft in Norway March 6, 2005

On March 6, 2005, three more Munch paintings were stolen from a hotel in Norway, including Blue Dress, and were recovered the next day.

Kunsthistorisches Museum May 11, 2003

On May 11, 2003, Benvenuto Cellini's Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which was covered by a scaffolding at that time due to reconstruction works. On January 21, 2006 the Saliera was recovered by the Austrian police.

Henry Moore Foundation Perry Green December 15, 2005

The artist's cast of Reclining Figure 1969–70, a bronze sculpture of British sculptor Henry Moore, was stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation's Perry Green base on December 15, 2005. Thieves are believed to have lifted the 3.6 × 2 × 2 metres (12 × 6.6 × 6.6 ft) wide, 2.1-tonne statue onto the back of a Mercedes lorry using a crane. Police investigating the theft believe it could have been stolen for scrap value.

Museu da Chácara do Céu February 24, 2006

On February 24, 2006, the paintings Man of Sickly Complexion Listening to the Sound of the Sea by Salvador Dalí, The Dance by Pablo Picasso, Luxembourg Gardens by Henri Matisse, and Marine by Claude Monet were stolen from the Museu da Chácara do Céu in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The thieves took advantage of a carnival parade passing by the museum and disappeared into the crowd. The paintings haven't been recovered yet.

São Paulo Museum of Art December 20, 2007

On December 20, 2007, around five o'clock in the morning, three men invaded the São Paulo Museum of Art and took two paintings, considered to be among the most valuable of the museum: the Portrait of Suzanne Bloch by Pablo Picasso and Cândido Portinari's O lavrador de café. The whole action took about 3 minutes. The paintings, which are listed as Brazilian National Heritage by IPHAN, remained missing until January 8, 2008, when they were recovered in Ferraz de Vasconcelos by the Police of São Paulo. The paintings were returned, undamaged, to the São Paulo Museum of Art.

Foundation E.G. Bührle February 11, 2008

On February 11, 2008, four major impressionist paintings were stolen from the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zürich, Switzerland. They were Monet's Poppy Field at Vetheuil, Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter by Edgar Degas, Van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches, and Cézanne's Boy in the Red Vest. The total worth of the four is estimated at $163 million.

Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo June 12, 2008

On June 12, 2008, three armed men broke into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum, São Paulo with a crowbar and a carjack around 5:09 am and stole The Painter and the Model (1963), and Minotaur, Drinker and Women (1933) by Pablo Picasso, Women at the Window (1926) by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti and Couple (1919) by Lasar Segall. It was the second theft of art in São Paulo in six months.

Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris May 10, 2010

On May 20, 2010, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris reported the overnight theft of five paintings from its collection. The paintings taken were Le pigeon aux petits pois by Pablo Picasso, La Pastorale by Henri Matisse, L'Olivier Près de l'Estaque by George Braque, La Femme à l'éventail by Amedeo Modigliani and Nature Morte aux Chandeliers by Fernand Léger and were valued at €100 million euros ($123 million).

Dulwich Park December 19-20, 2012 A cast of Barbara Hepworth's (5/6) Two Forms (Divided Circle) was displayed in Dulwich Park from 1970 until it was cut from it plinth by scrap metal thieves in December 2011. It was insured for £500,000, but its scrap value was estimated at perhaps £750. Southwark Council offered a reward of £1,000, and the Hepworth Estate increased the reward to £5,000, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves.
Kunsthal October 16, 2012

On October 16, 2012, seven paintings were stolen from the museum. The paintings included Monet's Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London, Picasso's Tete d'Arlequin, Gauguin's Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, Matisse's La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune, De Haan's Autoportrait, and Lucian Freud's Woman with Eyes Closed.

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