Edavrd Munch’s The Scream. Priceless Mayan art. Works of Rembrandt, Renoir, Degas, and Manet.
All have been lost to major art theft.
Art heists aren’t just fodder for popular movies like Ocean’s Twelve. They really happen, and great art is sometimes lost for good.
In the last three decades, the public has lost access to some of the world’s most recognizable and beloved art, and much of it has not been recovered. Here’s a round-up of some of the biggest art thefts of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s.
Mexico City 1985
In 1985, Mexico City’s world-famous National Museum of Anthropology lost 140 priceless artifacts to an inside job.
On Christmas Eve, a team of thieves broke into the museum and skillfully lifted the corners off glass display cases that allowed them access to many of the museum’s most valuable pieces of Pre-Colombian art.
The speed, skill, and ease with which the robbers accessed the cases, as well as their selectiveness choosing the very best pieces in the collection, indicated that these thieves had inside knowledge of the museum and/or its security. Nine guards and officers were questioned in the heist, but there was not enough evidence to charge any of them.
Since the works were among the most famous in the world, experts believe that it was nearly impossible to sell them, even on the black market. This is perhaps why most of the objects were later discovered in 1989 in an unrelated raid on a house related to a crime ring. All but 24 of the pieces were recovered.
In 1990, 13 priceless works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, among them a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet and several drawings by Degas. This robbery is considered the biggest museum heist in American history and possibly the single biggest property theft in the world. The estimated value of the artworks stolen tops $500 million.
The robbery happened very early in the morning on March 18, when a group of thieves arrived wearing fake police uniforms. The men claimed that they were responding to a tip about a disturbance. The guards on duty didn’t check on the story but instead just let them in.
The thieves then overpowered the security guards, handcuffing them and tying them up in the basement of the museum. In less than two hours, the robbers had made off with 13 of the Gardner’s works of art.
The thieves cut the paintings out of their frames and also left with a bronze Chinese vase, the top of a Napoleonic flag and a small etching.
Investigations have implicated a network of Connecticut mobsters led by Robert Gentile. No hard evidence has yet been found, however, and the art still remains lost, despite a $10 million standing reward from the museum.
One of the most famous paintings in the world, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, was stolen (but later found) in Norway just before the Olympics. The painting was stolen during open museum hours by two armed men in ski masks.
Despite the value of the painting (more than $100 million), the work was nearly impossible to sell, and the Norwegian museum did not have the money for ransom. An undercover agent posing as a buyer recovered the painting in 1996, and four men were convicted.
In the millennial year, a group of thieves took the same, less-clandestine approach to art robbery in Sweden’s capital when they entered the National Museum in Stockholm armed with submachine guns.
The thieves took a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two small paintings by Renoir before getting away in a pair speedboats that they had parked in the canal in front of the museum. Adding to the thriller-movie aesthetic of the robbery, two parked cars exploded with car bombs as a distraction to cover their escape.
As with the case in Mexico, however, the art proved difficult to resell. All three paintings (worth an estimated $45 million) were recovered by agents posing as art buyers.
In the end, it’s doubtful that any of these thieves (even those never caught) got rich off their art heists. The world’s most famous art is hard to move on the black market, and it’s just too likely your buyer will be a cop.