You’d think that cases of art theft and robbery in real life are as interesting as they’re portrayed on the big screen, and you’d be absolutely right! The most fascinating art heists in history can easily rival their fictional counterparts in suspense and storytelling, complete with eccentric thieves whose motives go well beyond money, stone-cold detectives who refuse to give up on the case, and plot twists that put most Hollywood heist stories to shame.
10. 1974 Russborough House Heist
On April 26, 1974, an armed gang reportedly led by ‘an attractive woman with a French accent’ raided the Russborough House in Ireland, making off with a collection of valuable artworks worth over $20.4 million at the time. Easily the largest art robbery in history at the time, the heist included paintings by renowned artists like Goya, Reubens, and Vermeer.
For the operation, the thieves – under the direct supervision of the mysterious woman – entered the house at night and tied up all of its inhabitants, including the owner Alfred Beit. They specifically targeted select masterpieces, like Jan Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter, With Her Maid, and Goya’s Woman in a Mantilla priced at $2.4 million, suggesting that they knew exactly what they came for. All of the stolen paintings were later recovered from a car at a residence linked to Rose Dugdale – a British heiress with ties to Irish revolutionary forces.
9. Quedlinburg Art Robbery
Some time around the end of the Second World War, an American Army officer named Lt. Joe T. Meador stole numerous works of art and other artifacts from the Quedlinburg Abbey in Germany. Now sometimes referred to as the Quedlinburg Art Heist, he went on to store the stolen works in a mine shaft cave to protect them from air raids, followed by shipping them off to his parents in Texas after the war.
The cache included many prized medieval antiques, including a jeweled ninth-century Samuhel Gospel and a 16th-century prayer book. While letters from the war established his culpability, the theft was never prosecuted by the US Army, effectively bringing the stolen things under the possession of the Meador. After his death in 1980, the pieces were sold or loaned to sustain their failing business.
The heist only came to light in 1990 with a New York Times report, resulting in legal action. Most of the objects were returned to Germany in 1991, with Meador’s heirs receiving a total of $2.75 million as settlement.
8. Ghent Altarpiece Heist
Officially called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the Ghent Altarpiece was painted by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, with the help of his brother Hubert, in 1432. The elaborate set of 12 panels is often considered the first major oil painting in history, marking the transition between the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It’s also called the ‘most stolen artwork in history’, as the Ghent Altarpiece has been robbed – in part or full – at least seven times, mostly in times of war.
On April 10, 1934, the Just Judges panel from the altarpiece was stolen once again. Its current whereabouts are one of the biggest mysteries of the art world, as the panel depicting biblical figures was taken from the Saint Bavo Cathedral overnight. Despite extensive investigations in the years since, the panel remains missing to this day.
7. Sao Paulo Museum Of Art Theft
In December 2007, thieves made off with paintings worth more than $50 million from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. It was blamed on lax security measures, as the museum, also sometimes referred to as MASP, was known to lack a working alarm system, sensors, or infrared-capable cameras. The theft was carried out in the early hours of the morning, as the thieves opened the main door with a rudimentary hydraulic jack and smashed the glass door with a crowbar.
In the next three minutes or so, the museum lost some of the most famous works in their collection, including Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and Brazilian artist Candido Portinari’s The Coffee Worker. The collection also included other pieces by European masters like Velazquez and Dali, most of which were uninsured. According to reports, the museum was already facing power cuts due to unpaid bills since at least 2005, and still relied on old-school techniques like patrolling to ensure the safety of its possessions.
6. Stockholm Museum Of Modern Art Heist
Back in 1993, art thieves in Stockholm executed one of the largest art heists in Sweden’s history. The site was the Museum of Modern Art, famous for its collection of contemporary and classic works but clearly not for its security infrastructure. They entered through the roof after drilling holes in the ceiling on a quiet Sunday night, as they lowered themselves into the main section to steal a collection worth about $52 million.
The stolen pieces included works by Picasso like The Spring, Dragonfly, The Painter, and others, as well as two paintings by Georges Braque called Chateau la Roche-Guyon and Still Life. The theft went entirely unnoticed by the staff on duty at the time, and was only discovered by a security guard the next morning.
5. Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts Heist
In September 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts went through what has often been called Canada’s largest art heist. Under the cover of the early morning hours, three thieves descended into the museum through the skylight, and proceeded to overpower and incapacitate the guards on duty at the time. They were questioned for a while about the most valuable works at the facility, though the descriptions provided by the guards were inadequate. The thieves hastily selected 18 paintings and 39 small objects and left, leaving out masterpieces by artists like Goya, El Greco, Picasso, and Rembrandt.
They initially attempted a pulley system to take the stolen art, but eventually opted for the museum’s panel van instead. That ultimately failed, too, resulting in them leaving the museum on foot. The estimated loss was calculated around $2 million at the time, which would be about $14 million in today’s value.
4. Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’
Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream has been stolen two times in history. The first one happened in February, 1994 during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, when two thieves entered Oslo’s National Gallery and stole the painting by breaking one of the windows inside the museum. The theft triggered an international law enforcement response, and it was eventually recovered by an undercover operation led by British detective Charles Hill.
The second time was a decade later, when in August, 2004, masked gunmen stormed the Munch Museum in Oslo and stole both The Scream and Madonna by Munch. While the heist led to the museum’s temporary closure, the suspects were eventually captured and the paintings recovered, though with some minor damage.
3. Mona Lisa Heist
The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris on August 20, 1911, triggering a global media frenzy that turned the painting into the most well-known piece of art in the world. It was executed by a man later identified as Vincenzo Perugia, who entered the museum dressed as an employee and concealed the painting beneath his apron. He was able to easily remove it from its frame, a job that was made even easier by the relaxed attitude of the security active in the facility at the time.
The heist remained unnoticed for over a day, as everyone thought that the artwork was removed for cleaning or photography. Subsequent investigations involved figures like Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso, though they were eventually cleared due to lack of evidence.
The painting remained hidden in Perugia’s apartment for over two years, until he attempted to sell it in 1913. He brought the stolen artwork to Geri, a Florence art dealer, who alerted the authorities instead of purchasing it. Perugia was arrested and the Mona Lisa was authenticated before being returned to the Louvre in January, 1914.
2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was looted on March 18, 1990, when thieves made off with 13 artworks valued at over $500 million, including pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. The heist was completed in about 81 minutes, as the thieves, dressed up as police officers, overpowered the guards and executed the robbery.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft remains the world’s largest property theft. It exposed fundamental problems with the security of the famed museum, including lack of interior cameras and inadequate guard training. The stolen works included Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – two of the most renowned missing artworks in history. Despite extensive investigations, the case remains unsolved, and the stolen pieces have not been recovered.
1. World War 2
The Second World War was the most devastating war in history, as well as perhaps the largest robbery of the world’s most renowned art pieces, especially in Europe. Throughout the war, the Third Reich was responsible for deliberately seizing about 20% of Europe’s artistic and cultural treasures, mostly from the Jewish part of the population. There were many motives behind this massive effort, including the Nazi hatred of modern art, Hitler’s personal ambition for a grand Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, and an attempt to erase all parts of the rich and diverse cultural history of European Jews.
The looted art was taken from various European locations and stashed in places like the Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Nazi headquarters in Munich. Retrieving looted and stolen artworks by the Nazis was a big part of the Allied war effort, as volunteers along the entire front rallied to safeguard national art collections and transported them to hidden safehouses. Despite those efforts, however, the Nazis managed to loot more than 600,000 paintings throughout the war, and anywhere between 30,000 to 100,000 of those are still missing.