Aware of the interest of thieves of all stripes in works of art, museum owners and law enforcement officers are taking unprecedented security measures. But the criminals have their own powerful trump card. Not coincidentally, according to the U.S. FBI, of the ten most high-profile thefts of masterpieces of world significance, so far only four have been solved.
The geography of the ten most notorious art thefts of the last 40 years is extensive—from Baghdad to Boston. Among the wanted masterpieces are two paintings by Van Gogh, stolen from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002, as well as masterpieces by Cellini, Caravaggio, Cézanne, Renoir, Rembrandt, Manet, the already mentioned da Vinci, Edvard Munch and other famous artists. First place in the ranking is taken by the unprecedented mass robbery of the museums of the whole country.
A theft in Scotland
The 10th in our ranking is the theft of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from the castle Drumlanrig in Scotland, which occurred in August 2003. The canvas of the great master Madonna of the Yarnwinder worth 50 million dollars was stolen from the house of one of the richest landowners of Scotland, the Duke of Buccleugh. The crime was suspected of four men, two of whom broke into the castle under the guise of tourists and took the picture, and two were waiting for the thieves in a car near the castle. The crime was solved: the painting was found in 2007 and the court let the suspects go – for lack of proof of guilt.
French paintings stolen in the UK
Ninth and eighth places in the ranking are stolen paintings by Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh—from a gallery in Oxford in 1999 and the Van Gogh Museum in 2002, respectively. In the first case, the thief took advantage of the roar of fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and in the second, of a giant ladder. The multimillion-dollar masterpieces have not been found.
Stradivari violin theft
Seventh place on the list of major art thefts is the famous theft of a Stradivarius violin—from a private collection in New York in 1995. The instrument, created by the great Italian master in 1727 and valued at $3 million, was stolen from the apartment of violinist Erica Morini. Investigators suggested that this crime was ordered—for it is impossible to sell a violin Stradivarius at an auction.
Cosa Nostra case
The sixth place is connected with the mafia. In October 1969, two thieves entered the altar of the church of St. Lorenzo in Palermo and cut out of the frame Caravaggio’s painting Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. Experts estimated the masterpiece at 20 million dollars. The canvas was found only in 2003—in the Sicilian villa of the ringleader of Cosa Nostra Gerlando Alberti.
Cellini’s gold sculpture disappears
The theft of Benvenutto Cellini’s gold sculpture Saliera opens the top five. In May 2003, early in the morning, thieves used a stepladder to gain access to the second floor of a museum building located in the center of Vienna, and after breaking the glass case in which the sculpture was kept, they took it out of the museum. The value of the stolen masterpiece was estimated by insurers at 55 million dollars. However, in fact the stolen masterpiece does not have a price, as it is the only extant gold sculpture of the famous Italian master.
Armed robbery in Oslo
The fourth place is taken by the daring theft of Edvard Munch’s paintings Madonna and The Scream from the museum in Oslo on August 22, 2004. Armed robbers stormed into the museum in broad daylight when it was full of visitors, tore the famous paintings from the walls, ran out of the building, got into a black Audi and disappeared. Paintings were recovered in 2006, and the criminals were arrested and convicted.
National Museum of Sweden robbed
The third place in the rating is for the robbery of the National Museum of Sweden in December 2000, which resulted in the disappearance of two paintings by Renoir and one by Rembrandt. Three men entered the museum in Stockholm and directed a gun to the guards, within minutes methodically cut out of the frames three paintings worth a total of 36 million dollars—Self-Portrait by Rembrandt, as well as La Parisienne and Conversation with the Gardener by Renoir. All the masterpieces were returned a few years later.
Theft from a museum in Mexico
The second place goes to the theft from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which occurred in December 1985. Having opened seven glass cases with priceless artifacts from the Maya and Aztec periods, the thieves took more than 140 of the rarest works of art, including gold jewelry, vases and sculptures. To assess the damage to the museum, it was extremely difficult: the value of just one vase of the Maya curator of the museum estimated at more than 20 million dollars. Since then, only Indian burial mask has been found and returned to the museum.
The leader of the rating until recently was the unsurpassed impudence and scale of the looting of national museums in Iraq, which began in March-April 2003 during a military conflict involving the United States. Huge collections of valuables from the times of ancient Persia, Egypt and Kuwait were taken out literally in trucks—and are now apparently in private collections across the ocean.
The biggest heist ever
However, the biggest heist happened in 2010. On the night of May 19 to 20 five paintings by such great masters as Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Braque and Léger were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The criminals have broken the lock of the iron fence and cut the glass in the window, which allowed them to freely enter the building and quietly leave it. According to the most conservative estimates, the value of the stolen goods is estimated at half a billion euros (about $615 million), which is now an absolute record.
Why was the Mona Lisa stolen?
And here is an older story, but no less interesting. Because it is about the “queen” of masterpieces. So, on August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Portrait of Madame Lisa Giocondo, better known to the world as the Mona Lisa, disappeared from the Louvre. The crime was so high-profile that the famous poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested on suspicion of committing it, but he was soon released. Even Pablo Picasso himself fell under the police’s radar, but he was not implicated. The search for the painting was unsuccessful.
The painting by the great Leonardo was found only two years later in Italy. The theft was uncovered thanks to… the thief himself, a former employee of the Louvre, the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia. The kidnapper responded to an advertisement in the newspaper—he offered to sell the Gioconda to the director of the Uffizi gallery. Despite the capture of the thief, the purpose of the theft of the Mona Lisa was not clarified perfectly.
Some experts have suggested that Peruggia was going to make a few copies of the Mona Lisa and sell them to collectors, posing as the original. Perhaps the Italian thought that he was returning the painting to its historical homeland—he was sure that the French led by Napoleon I “stole” the immortal canvas. The thief, apparently, was not aware that Leonardo himself had brought the painting to France…
The thief was arrested and imprisoned, and Gioconda, after a series of exhibitions in Italy, was returned to Paris in triumph in 1914. All this time the Mona Lisa did not leave the covers of newspapers and magazines all over the world, and its abduction was dubbed by newspapermen as “the crime of the century.” It was after this story that Leonardo’s painting became an acknowledged masterpiece, and its security was significantly strengthened.