Robbing artwork worth millions of dollars from heavily guarded museums is not an easy feat. However, despite all the dangers of being caught and prosecuted for art theft, it is not uncommon. And, real-life instances of museum heists envisioned and implemented by highly notorious and skilful robbers have also found a way into pop culture.
For instance, movies like Entrapment (1999) or Black Panther (2018), which crafted their plots brilliantly using real-life incidents. Netflix also came up with a documentary called This Is a Robbery: World’s Biggest Art Heist in 2021, which has a part-by-part investigation of the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
While some of these mysteries are revealed with the stolen artworks being restored to their rightful place, some are still waiting to be solved such as the precious paintings of the Boston museum, valued at USD 500 million, or the rare 1887 painting of Vincent van Gogh, Poppy Flowers, which was stolen from Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza, Egypt. Empty frames still stand tall at these museums, waiting for the exquisite, one-of-its-kind paintings to return just as mysteriously as they were stolen.
What is an art heist?
Stealing art mostly by physical coercion (for instance, holding guards at a gunpoint) and successfully fleeing with it is categorised as an art heist. The techniques used by the thieves are often imaginative, bold and sometimes gimmicky.
Art heists: Past and the present
Did you know? The first-ever art theft was carried out way back in 1473, when a few Polish pirates robbed Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement (1467–71) from a ship bound for Florence. The painting hasn’t been returned to the Italians still as it is one of the prized possessions at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland.
Cut to the latest art heist that shocked the world. A group of robbers entered the Bavarian Museum on 22 November 2022 and walked away with around 500 gold coins worth millions of euros belonging to the 100 BC era.
Here are some of the most daring and fascinating museum heists of all time
The Mona Lisa heist
One of the most highly regarded artworks in the world, The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci, was stolen back in 1911. In a misguided sense of delivering justice, an ordinary Italian handyman by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia thought he was doing a service to Italy, which was ravaged by the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte by stealing the painting.
With less attention on this particular painting back then, Peruggia was able to escape with the artwork along with his accomplices. He took it to Paris and tried selling it to an art dealer in Florence. The dealer immediately notified the Uffizi Galleries director Giovanni Pog who got Peruggia arrested.
The Boston Museum heist
This might be one of the most sensational thefts which shocked the whole art world. This even inspired Netflix to make a documentary series. The year was 1990 and the place Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, when two convincing-looking individuals posed as policemen entered the museum premises in broad daylight, tied up the guards and uttered the famous lines, “Gentlemen, this is a robbery” and went away with 13 exquisite, expensive and original works of art.
Their stolen artworks included The Concert (1664), one of the rare Vermeer paintings, a 1633 Rembrandt painting and another by Manet. The total worth of these paintings as estimated in 2021, is around USD 500 million. Their recovery is still awaited. A few claim that the priceless art pieces are lost forever.
The Museum of Modern Art, Paris robbery
Ultra stylish and super innovative, the heist at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in 2010, is bookmarked in history as one of the most famous art robberies. The criminal mastermind behind this art theft, Vjeran Tomic, called himself Spiderman after entering not once or twice but several times into the heavily guarded establishment to steal important works of art, repeatedly.
His method was spraying acid until the window melted, providing easy access without any force of entry.
Initially, he only took Henri Matisse’s Pastorale (1905) but was tempted to steal more. Later he took paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. He along with his two accomplices were caught and sentenced to eight years. Despite the thieves getting nabbed, valuable artworks worth USD 107 million are still missing.
Mexican Archeological Museum heist
Another case of reel-life inspired by real life. The movie Museo (2018) starring Gael García Bernal was based on this incident. This robbery took place at the National Museum of Archaeology in 1985, by a couple of college dropouts wanting to make quick money to fuel their drug addiction. One of the most prized artefacts from their loot was the jade mask of a Mayan ruler.
As outlandish as it may sound, they were actually successful in taking over 124 artefacts before selling them for hordes of cocaine.
World’s most stolen painting — ‘Takeaway Rembrandt’
An artwork from Britain’s Dulwich Picture Gallery holds a place in Guinness Book of World Records for being the most stolen painting. A portrait of Rembrandt depicting Jacob de Gheyn III (1632) has been stolen four times — 1966, 1973, 1981 and 1986.
Because of its chequered history, the painting came to be known as the ‘Takeaway Rembrandt.’
Poppy Flowers robbery at Giza
This robbery took place in 2010, at Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza, Egypt and is a black mark on the authorities and the Government alike. The art thieves managed to get away with the robbery of one of the most celebrated paintings around the globe, an 1887 Vincent van Gogh piece called Poppy Flowers. Reportedly, on the day of the robbery, only nine visitors checked in but the thieves managed to loot the museum owing to poor security.
There was a rightful media outrage against the museum’s director, eleven cultural ministry workers resigned and police officers arrested security guards for negligence. The painting worth USD 50 million still hasn’t been retrieved yet.
The Scream and The Madonna Heist, Oslo
While a different version of The Scream (1893), a painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was stolen once in 1994 from the National Gallery of Oslo, another version of it was taken along with the impressionist’s famous painting, The Madonna in 2004, in broad daylight from the Munch Museum, Oslo, amid a huge crowd. Few masked men took the paintings away and fled after threatening the museum security at gunpoint.
Although police successfully caught the culprits, The Scream, which is the most expensive work of Munch, had been damaged.
Jewels from Dresden Museum, Germany
This 2019 robbery will go down in history as one of the quickest art heists as it was completed in less than a minute. The thieves first cut the electric current of the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) and then rammed an axe into the glass case and stole USD 1.2 billion worth of jewels including a sword encrusted with 800 diamonds and the 49.84-carat Dresden White Diamond.
The police arrested four for the crime but are still on the lookout for the jewels.
Impression, Sunrise from Paris Museum
One of the most daring heists to have taken place in the history of museum robberies was when a group of thieves entered the museum premises and bought tickets to go inside. They then held nine guards and 40 other visitors at gunpoint before fleeing with a total of nine paintings including Claude Monet’s 1872 artwork Impression, Sunrise and a few works by Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Fortunately, the police were able to nab seven thieves in 1990 at Corsica, and recover the art. The paintings were estimated to be worth USD 20 million except for Impression, Sunrise which is priceless.
The Saleira by Benvenuto Cellini, Vienna
In one of the rare instances where the thief turned out to be the security guard himself, Robert Mang, a 1543 relic was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2003. The police arrested the thief and got hold of the USD 60 million worth golden sculpture — The Saleira by Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini, which was hidden away in a lead box in a forest by Mang.
(Main and featured image: Courtesy Leonardo Da Vinci/Wikimedia Commons)