The Most Expensive Art Heists

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The Cost of Art Theft – The Most Expensive Art Heists

Some of the most expensive and rare art work thefts read like a shopping list; and they probably are.  Any major artwork thief worth his or her salt is likely to be aware that there is limited market for works by great masters, a Vermeer or a Monet is not exactly the easiest haul to shift.  The top art thefts of the last few decades have all had that “available for pre-order” feel. But while the thieves and their customer’s profit, the world’s cultural history becomes poorer.  A couple of sorry tales from the art theft world are good examples. 

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – Various Artists

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, Massachusetts, is home to some seriously impressive works to this day.  Up until the 18 March 1990 it was home to slightly more.  Guards at the museum allowed two police officers into the building, who claimed to be investigating a disturbance.  There were strict security policies against this sort of intrusion, but the guards were happy to give the ‘officers’ have access to the building.  They were less happy when they found themselves bound, gagged and locked up in the cellar.  The officers made off with £300 million worth of paintings which included what sounds like a private art collectors “dream team”.  Three Rembrandts, a Monet, a Vermeer, a Flinck and five Degas sketches formed the most lucrative part of the haul.  Whether the officers, actually thieves in case you hadn’t yet guessed, were aiming to break the record for the largest art work haul in history is unclear; but they managed it.  What exactly the museum’s art insurance arrangements were is unclear, but there is still a $5 million reward for anyone who can shed light on the whereabouts of the stolen artworks. 

The Scream – Edvard Much

Or at least somebody wants ‘The Scream’.  Munch’s iconic painting has been subjected to a number of attempts on its security.  Despite the fact that you can pick up a copy for a few pence in any museum shop, ‘The Scream’ continues to attract the attention of determined, if underhand, art collectors.  Munch created a number of painted versions, a lithograph and versions in pastel of the image, foreshadowing its constant reproduction.  Although not quite as ubiquitous as the postcards, there are at a good number of originals for thieves to target and the temptation has proved too much.  In 1994 thieves left a note thanking the National Gallery of Norway for its poor security as they made off with one of the painted versions.  A million dollar ransom was demanded but never paid and thankfully the painting was recovered, unharmed, within two months.  In 2004 the Munch Museum, Oslo, was subjected to one of the most daring art thefts.  Masked gunmen stole ‘The Scream’ and also Munch’s ‘Madonna’ during regular opening hours.  The thieves were eventually caught, tried and imprisoned although the recovery of the artwork took longer and both works were found to have sustained some damage.

The Mona Lisa – Leonardo Da Vinci

It’s a question that’s been asked for centuries, what exactly is Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ smirking about.    Possibly the smile has something to do with whatever she got up to on her two-year stint on the missing persons’ list that began in 1911.  Initially, the authorities at the Louvre thought she’d been removed to take photographs for marketing purposes – more bloody postcards – but it turned out she’d made off with a nice young chap called Peruggia.  They’d hidden in a broom cupboard until the museum closed and then eloped to Italy, her original homeland.  Fugitives for two years, the painting nearly became known to history as the ‘Lost Lisa’ until Peruggia took the rather daft step of trying to sell her to the Uffizi in Florence.  Although he received six months in jail he was also hailed as a national hero for his clumsy attempt to return the painting to her homeland.  After a triumphant tour of Italian art galleries Da Vinci’s most famous painting returned to the Louvre – and billions more postcards were made.

While international art thieves and dubious collectors continue to plunder the world’s great art collections, at the expense of art lovers and art insurance companies, it’s comforting at least to know that occasionally art thieves, like Perugia, have their hearts in the right place, even if their brains could be better located.

This post was generously provided by Peter.

Peter writes about finance and insurance, covering everything from personal finance to high-value insurance companies. When he’s not online he enjoys cycling, swimming and loves great food.

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  • Jason Macuha February 26, 2016, 4:54 pm

    The only way to stop Art Theft if the art community stops buying stolen art. If the buying stops, the stealing stops.