What makes the perfect art heist? Does it involve stealing multiple pieces, or just one? Maybe it means shutting down the security system or even a distraction tactic such as a smoke bomb? To each art thief, the answer is different, but the result is the same.
Throughout history, dozens of artworks have been stolen from galleries, museum collections, homes, and even from artists’ studios. It is believed that many paintings have been sneakily replaced with fake copies and based on previous crimes it has proven difficult for investigators to solve cases of missing masterpieces. To be more precise, only 5 to 10 percent of stolen artwork is recovered; and we’re not talking about small pieces – we mean priceless pieces of art that are guarded by the most elite security teams and software.
So, if you’re wondering how art thieves somehow manage to get away with this devasting, yet skillful act, don’t worry, you are not alone. We have researched the world’s most successful art theft stories (at least, from the perspective of the thief) that will definitely leave you questioning how they got away with it.
“Le Pigeon aux petit pois”, Pablo Picasso
In May of 2010, Picasso’s “Le Pigeon aux petit pois” was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris alongside five other works. Alone, the Picasso painting is estimated to be worth €20 Million and dates back to 1911. Authorities remain confused and frustrated eight years later as the painting is yet to be recovered. The mystery continues to build as not only were the paintings carefully removed from their frames, but the act also is believed to have been conducted by a sole individual. And this wasn’t the first Picasso to be pocketed. To this date, Picasso holds the top spot for having the most paintings stolen over time.
“The Concert”, Johannes Vermeer
On March 18, 1990, two thieves stole a total of 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One of the pieces was a Vermeer masterpiece, which was created mid-career, “The Concert”. Estimated to worth anywhere upwards of $200 million, the painting holds the record for most valuable unrecovered stolen work of art. The thieves dressed as Boston Police officers and sported fake mustaches. Within a few minutes of entering the museum, the fake officers claimed they had a warrant and arrested the museum guards. The theft was conducted by amateurs; however, it is said to be the largest art heist in history.
“View of Auvers-Sur-Oise”, Paul Cézanne
Painted by Cézanne between 1879 and 1882, “View of Auvers-Sur-Oise” depicts a small town near Versailles where the artist lived for a brief period of time. This painting is important to art history as it captures a transitionary period from Cézanne’s earlier days to more mature work.
The theft, occurring in 1991 at an Oxford museum, was conducted by a professional burglar who smashed a skylight, lowered himself down with a rope, and created a smokescreen to hide from the security cameras. This act was carefully planned to occur on New Years eve, allowing the burglar to easily blend into the crowd once exiting the museum. 27 years later, the painting is estimated to be worth €3 million and is yet to be recovered
“Charing Cross Bridge, London”, Claude Monet
Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge” is a famous series depicting the bridge at various times of the day, from different viewpoints. In 2012, one of the pieces from the series was stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam and is valued at an undisclosed sum. Using speed as their main tactic, the group entered through the back exit of the gallery, grabbed the paintings, and fled, all within two minutes. A group of Romanian thieves was arrested a year later and one of which said the painting was burned in his Mom’s oven. However, there is not enough evidence to prove this claim and therefore the painting is still considered to be missing.
“Femme Devant Une Fenêtre Ouverte, Dite La Fiancée”, Paul Gauguin
Also stolen in 2012 from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, this Gauguin painting is considered both unique and rare. While the painting’s value remains undisclosed, the museum has said it is worth “a considerable amount of money”. Despite this, it appears the museum may have acted negligently as the painting was not equipped with an alarm. A statement was released claiming the thieves mother destroyed the painting in her oven, however the media later retracted this.
“Portrait of a Young Man”, Raphael
Disappearing in 1945, “Portrait of a Young Man” is considered to be the most important piece of missing art since World War II. The $100 million piece was one of many snatched by the Nazis in Poland and depicts a confident and well-dressed young man. While there is controversy surrounding the piece, it is believed that the young man is Raphael himself. In 2012, a false report was published claiming the painting has been discovered but was quickly removed.
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, Rembrandt
Nearly three decades after thieves stole Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” from the Boston Museum, investigators are still on the hunt to find the missing painting. The Dutch master’s iconic seascape was stolen alongside 12 other treasures, including Vermeer’s “The Concert”. The privately funded reward was set at $5 million for years and unexpectedly doubled in May of 2017 to reignite a sense of urgency. However, the reward has since expired, and the pieces remained unrecovered.
“Poppy Flowers”, Vincent Van Gogh
One of Van Gogh’s later works, “Poppy Flowers” was created just three years before the artist’s death. Despite being relatively small in size, the painting is estimated to hold a value of $50 million. No wonder the demand over this painting is so high as it wasn’t just stolen once, but twice! The first theft occurred in 1997 at the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt and was recovered 10 years later. Then, in 2010 the painting was stolen again from the same location where it is believed to have been an inside job. On that day, only 7 of the 43 cameras worked in the museum and no alarm was triggered. To retrieve the painting, the thief moved a couch and cut the painting from its frame triggering zero alarms; not to mention it was broad daylight at the time and the museum only had 10 visitors that day!
Although shocking, this is just the tip of the art crime iceberg. More than 50,000 pieces of artwork are stolen each year from museums and galleries around the world. Police officers and art owners invest time and money into the recovery of art, especially as there are welfare costs from the disappearance of a stolen piece. This is because art is considered a public good, meaning one person’s enjoyment of an art piece does not diminish another’s. History has proven it is not impossible to steal artwork, however, doing so removes the opportunity for art to be shared among the masses. In an effort to make art more accessible, Arius’ has developed cutting-edge technology that allows for the re-creation of museum-quality masterpieces, while original pieces can safely remain in storage facilities. Get in touch to find out more about our Art Collector Services.