Man at His Best

5 Biggest Art Heists Ever

Forget the movies, these are the biggest real-life art heists in history.

BY sam mclean | Mar 14, 2016 | Arts

It has probably happened to you a million times; you come home to discover that the original Picassos, Van Goghs and Rembrandts that were proudly hanging on your wall when you popped out to the mamak are now missing. This was the fate that befell one hapless householder in Madrid, Spain, when he returned home to find five Francis Bacon paintings, with an estimated worth of USD33 million, had been stolen.  

And so it got us to thinking a couple of things. Firstly, is it time to take down the Betty Blue poster and replace it with a Jackson Pollock and, secondly, what are the biggest art heists of all time? One of those questions was easier to answer…

5 | Chacara do Ceu art museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2006
It was the perfect cover. With Rio in full Carnival mode, thousands of people thronged through the streets wearing masks and fancy dress. Thieves sneaked into the museum, stole works by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Dalí, worth a total of  USD43 million, and promptly disappeared amongst the revellers outside.

4 | La Louvre, Paris, France, 1911
As the man who installed the safety glass over the Mona Lisa, Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian immigrant and Louvre employee, was well aware of the museum’s security, or lack thereof. And so, intending to repatriate the painting to its homeland, he calmly walked in one day, put the painting under his coat and simply walked out. Keeping the Mona Lisa in a false-bottomed suitcase, he was caught two years later when he tried to sell the artwork in Italy.

3 | Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, England, 2003
Given their ability to evade security guards, CCTV and specialised alarms, police were convinced that the team who stole a Gauguin, a Van Gogh, and a Picasso were professionals. However, the works were quickly found, in a public toilet a short distance away from the museum, with a hand written note saying: “The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security.”

2 | Swedish National Museum, Stockholm, 2010
As plans go, this one was pretty Ocean’s Eleven-esque. The robbers had planted car bombs in the city along the road leading to the waterfront museum. As three masked, armed men went into the museum, forcing everyone inside onto the ground, the bombs went off, causing chaos in the city. The robbers spent 40 minutes inside the museum before making off–via boat, with police unable to reach the museum because of the gridlock the bombs had caused–with USD43 million worth of paintings in the shape of a Rembrandt and two Renoirs. All three paintings were recovered two years later after an ex-FBI man had gone undercover as a dodgy art dealer, tricking the thieves into trying to sell him their ill-gotten gains.

1 | Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, USA, 1990
In the early hours of 18 March, 1990, two men dressed as police officers rang the bell of the rear door of the private museum. Two security guards were on duty, one was on patrol, the other buzzed the police officers inside. When inside, one of the ‘officers’ said he recognised the security guard and that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The ‘police officer’ handcuffed him. When the other security returned, they handcuffed him too. Not unreasonably, the second security guard asked why he was being arrested–the robbers then told them that they weren’t being arrested, they were being robbed. The fake policeman then spent the next 81 minutes loading their car with, amongst others, Manets, Rembrandts and a Degas, a haul that amounted to USD500 million. None of the works have ever been recovered, no arrests were ever made and it remains the largest private property robbery in history.