5 High-Profile Art Heists Revisited

By Erika Lehman, Marketing Coordinator ~

This blog article goes hand-in-hand with the PechaKucha Night presentation I am set to deliver on Thursday, September 24. A few speakers were forced to withdraw last minute due to unforeseen circumstances, so I decided to fill one of the slots with a topic I’ve always been fascinated with: art theft! Many famous pieces of art that I remember from my college art history classes were involved in high-profile heists that may or may not have contributed to their fame.

Here’s a list of the top 5 I found to be most fascinating:

The Last Judgement by Hans Memling was en route to Florence in 1473 when it was stolen by Polish pirates. The buccaneers brought the altarpiece to a cathedral in Poland. This is the first documented art heist in history, and ironically, the painting was never returned to its rightful home, as it remains on view in Poland’s National Museum. Imagine commissioning a wildly expensive painting, waiting 3 years for its completion, and painstakingly making arrangements for its arrival….only to have it stolen by pirates. At least it makes for a good story.

Memling - last judgement
The Last Judgement by Hans Memling

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci was stolen from The Louvre on August 21, 1911. The painting was already quite famous, so the theft drew international attention. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, hid in a closet overnight and emerged the following day dressed in the guise of a museum employee. He smuggled the wood-paneled-painting out of the museum under his smock and later, hid the painting in the false bottom of a trunk. Although he was questioned about the theft, the police believed his alibi, and he managed to evade authorities for two years. His story unraveled after he brought it to an Italian gallery owner to get the painting authenticated. According to Peruggia, he was simply trying to return the masterpiece to its homeland.

Mona Lisa with many people
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci was recovered in 1914

The Scream by Edvard Munch has been stolen on two occasions, but there are actually four versions of the painting, so thankfully no museum has to admit that the same painting was stolen twice. The first incident took place at the National Museum in Oslo Norway when the painting was moved down to a second-story gallery to coincide with increased attendance from the 1994 Olympics. The thieves left a note saying “thanks for the poor security” and wanted a $1M ransom. The museum refused to pay, and thankfully, the painting was recovered not long after in a sting operation. Do you think we would have heard more about this if the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding showdown was not in the picture?

The second incident took place in August 2004 when masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum in Oslo during broad daylight and stole the tempera on board version of The Scream along with Munch’s Madonna. Several individuals were arrested and convicted for their association with the thefts, but the paintings were not recovered until 2006, and very little has been released about how the mystery was solved. Both paintings suffered minimal damage and were returned to the Museum.

The Scream by Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo da Vinci was nabbed in 2003 from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland by two men posing as under-cover-police-disguised-as-tourists (clever!). They were seen by two foreign tourists as they emerged from a window with the painting, but nobody thought to question them after they answered with “Don’t worry love, we’re the police. This is just practice.” The painting was recovered in 2008 from a successful and well-respected law firm in Glasgow.

Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Da vinci
Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo da Vinci

Thirteen paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. Two men disguised as police offers came to the museum in the wee hours of the morning to investigate an alleged disturbance. They detained the security guards on duty, cut thirteen works out of their frames, and vanished back into the night. The theft, valued at $500M, is the biggest in history and remains unsolved to this day. The empty frames remain on view at the Museum, marking the places where these masterpieces once stood.

Stolen paintings - Vermeer and Rembrandt
The Storm on the Sea of Gailee by Rembrandt and The Concert by Vermeer were both stolen in 1990. They were never recovered.


Empty frames on walls
Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Ironically, several of these cases occurred within the last 25 years despite heightened security systems and significant advancements in technology. Likewise, the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains unsolved, even with a $5M reward at stake.

What do you think happened to the 13 paintings at the Boston museum? Perhaps you will be the one to crack the case!