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Biggest Art Heists In History

August 14, 2020
The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring
Vincent van Gogh / Public domain

Museums protect precious art in many different ways. Some have actual security guards surrounding them, and most use technology to alert local authorities if someone comes too close to the artwork. Seems like a good system, but it can take a while for police to arrive, and that’s precisely what helped thieves recently run away with a Van Gogh painting. A painting from Van Gogh’s early years titled The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, was displayed at a small museum in the Netherlands. Van Gogh created this painting while living with his parents, who were not all that convinced he would go on to be a famous artist (spoiler alert: He became very famous). The heist happened on what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday and was the second time a major Van Gogh piece was stolen. The last time something like this happened? Two Van Gogh paintings were stolen in 2002 but were returned in 2016! Retrieving stolen artwork is a pleasant surprise but not unusual. It’s not always easy for thieves to re-sell stolen artwork, especially if it’s famous, and the police take finding those thieves very seriously.

So, here are five notable heists in the history of the art world. Don’t worry, most of them have happy endings!

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream

Two thieves stole this painting on the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. They broke in through a window at the National Art Museum in Oslo, took the painting, and left a snarky note that read, “Thousand thanks for the bad security!” The painting was recovered three months later (oh, and stolen again in 2004).

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Mona Lisa

Well, this was a bold theft! In 1911, an employee at the Louvre Museum in Paris simply walked out of the museum with the Mona Lisa in his jacket. His motive was more about politics than greed. You see, he believed that the painting belonged in Italy, not France. The painting was eventually tracked down and returned to the Louvre in 1913.

Portrait Of A Lady by Gustav Klimt

Portrait of a Lady

Imagine a decades-long hunt for a painting that was hidden in the art gallery all along! The painting by Gustav Klimt went missing in 1997 from a museum in Piacenza, Italy, so imagine the surprise when gardeners clearing away ivy and weeds found it in the same gallery twenty-three years later. No, this was not a case of a misplaced masterpiece; thieves did steal the painting but claimed to have returned it as a gift to the city. Well, they still received a jail sentence!

Self-Portrait by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Self Portrait

The theft of this masterpiece was just like an action movie, complete with speedboats, car chases, and a dramatic robbery. The portrait was stolen from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Sweden, along with other paintings by another famous artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. By 2005, authorities tracked down and returned the paintings.

The Concert by Johannes Vermeer

The Concert

In 1990, thieves stole thirteen paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. One particular painting, The Concert, is considered the most expensive painting ever stolen, given the painting’s value of around $500 million. And in case you’re curious, this one remains stolen to this day!