I’m curious whether Mona Lisa was still smiling back in 1911, when she was grabbed from the Louvre. However, I’m pretty sure that two years later, when she was recovered, her smile was more beautiful than ever. Overall, the heist remains the most famous art thefts in history, but Mona Lisa was one of the lucky ones. There are approximately 350,000 stolen artworks in the world that have yet to be recovered. Most of them are traded on the black market and that’s the best case scenario. In the worst case, they have already been destroyed in a fit of panic. Each year, art crimes total up to $6 billion worldwide. Then again, who can put a price on cultural prejudice?
While the world rejoices each time a missing artwork is retrieved, forensics are doing their best to gather evidence that might lead to the whereabouts of famous pieces snatched by dexterous thieves over the past century, most of them rumored to have been destroyed. So let’s have a look at the biggest art heists in history. They made it on the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list, chances are they face a gloomy fate, and it’s unlikely that they will come to surface anytime soon. Some were thrown in the trash, some were presumably burned. However, there is absolutely no evidence to sustain any of these theories, no proof that they were indeed destroyed or are still out there somewhere, gathering piles of dust in some obscure basement.
10. The Kunsthal Museum Heist
Paul Gauguin’s Femme Devant Une Fenetre Ouverte, Dite La Fiancee painted in 1888 was one of seven famous works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Lucian Freud that were stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands in October 2012. It took only three minutes for the thieves to break into the museum, snatch the seven canvases, and get out. The combined estimated value of the stolen artworks is $24 million. All seven paintings, including Gauguin’s masterpiece, are still missing and are presumed destroyed. One of the thieves’ mother claimed she burned the stolen artworks in a wood-burning stove in the hope of freeing her son from prosecution due to lack of evidence. One of the strangest and biggest art thefts in history might have left the world short of famous masterpieces which include Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London, Matisse’s Reading Girl in White and Yellow, Picasso’s Harlequin Head, and Gauguin’s Femme Devant Une Fenetre Ouverte, Dite La Fiancee.
9. Rembrandt’s Storm of the Sea of Galilee
The famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that left 13 frames blank is known as America’s biggest art theft to date, and the case remains unsolved. Storm of the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt Van Rijn’s famous masterpiece, was one of the 13 artworks, estimated at $3.4 million, only a fraction of the half a billion dollars heist. It is even more valuable as it is Rembrandt’s only known seascape, depicting Jesus calming the Sea if Galilee, a Biblical miracle described in the Gospel of Mark. In 2013, the FBI announced that they knew the identities of the thieves, but no names have been revealed and no other commentaries have been made on the subject matter since.
8. Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise
While the world was caught up in the fireworks and parties celebrating New Year’s Eve on the 31st of December 1999, a witty thief broke into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, and snatched Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise. The thief managed to grab the painting and flee the museum in less than 10 minutes. Painted sometime between 1873 and 1875, during the artist’s prolonged stay at Auvers, View of Auvers-sur-Oise is an oil on canvas considered an important artwork and piece of puzzle in history, as it provides insight on Cezanne’s evolution as an artist. Interestingly enough, the piece was never signed or dated by Paul Cezanne, as the artist never considered it finished.
7. Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen
At precisely 8:00 in the morning of the 7th of December 2002, two men climbed the roof of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and broke in. They only took two paintings, but worth a combined estimated value of over $30 million. The paintings were finished by the often misunderstood artist in 1882 and 1884. View of the Sea at Scheveningen was painted on the spot, making the work extremely valuable as Van Gogh had to fight the gusting winds blowing the sand on the wet paint. Most of the sand was scraped off, but there are still grains in certain parts of the paint layers. In 2004, two suspects were arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison, but the two masterpieces were never retrieved. There’s still a generous reward of $140,000 for any information leading to their whereabouts.
6. Jan Van Eyck’s The Just Judges
In the midst of the night of April 10th 1934, Jan Van Eyck’s The Just Judges disappeared from Saint Bavon’s Cathedral in Ghent, Blegium, where it was displayed as part of the famous 12-panel altarpiece called Adoration of the Lamb, created between 1426 and 1432. The Just Judges is the only piece that was taken from the altar. It was replaced by a note reading “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.” Over the following months, the self-acclaimed thief and the Belgian government exchanged a number of ransom notes. Later that year, the supposed thief was revealed, a rich local politician by the name of Arsene Goedertier. On his dying bed, he stated that he was the only person in the world who knew the whereabouts of the stolen artwork and that he would take the secret with him to his grave.
5. Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence
Up until 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence had been hung in the altar of the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. In October 1969, it was removed from its frame and taken out of the church. The local Mafia were, and still are the prime suspects, and the painting’s whereabouts remain unknown to this day. There are however many theories regarding what might have happened to it, including that it was hidden in a farmhouse where it was destroyed by rats and pigs. Recently, a former Mafia hitman declared that the artwork was burned in the 1980’s. Believed to have been painted in 1609, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence is one of the finest examples of Italian Baroque art and one of Caravaggio’s absolute masterpieces.
4. Picasso’s Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois
At exactly 7:00 in the morning of May 20th 2010, five paintings disappeared from Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. Only a broken window and a padlock were found at the scene. Security footage revealed that it was a one man job. What’s even stranger is that the thief had the remarkable skills to remove the works from their frames, rather than cutting them with a knife which would have been simpler and faster. The five artworks are worth a combined $140 million. Pablo Picasso’s Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois, or The Pigeon With Green Peas was one of the five paintings. Painted in 1911, it has an estimated value of over $30 million. The heist is one of the most bizarre art thefts in history. In 2011, a suspect was arrested. He claimed that shortly after the robbery, he panicked and threw the masterpieces in the trash. His declarations raised much controversy, and the paintings are still nowhere to be found.
3. Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers
Poppy Flowers is a small one foot by one foot painting by master Vincent Van Gogh depicting, you guessed it, a vase with yellow and red poppy flowers. Nothing spectacular about it, except it’s worth a staggering $55 million and was stealthily stolen in 2010. Believed to have been painted in 1887, three years before Van Gogh committed suicide, Poppy Flowers was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. The thieves cut the painting from its frame, faithfully copying the same mode of operation of the previous theft. That’s right, the painting was stolen once before from the same museum in 1978, but was recovered two years later in Kuwait. There’s still a $200,000 reward for information regarding the painting’s whereabouts.
2. Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they grabbed Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man from the Czarttoryski Museum in Krakow. The famous masterpiece was taken back to Germany to decorate Hitler’s Berlin residence. At the end of World War 2, in 1945, the oil on panel painting was taken by Nazi officials from the Fuhrer’s residence at the Wawel Castle. It has never been seen since. Painted sometime between 1513 and 1514, Portrait of a Young Man is traditionally believed to be Raphael’s self-portrait and is the most famous and most valuable artwork plundered by the Nazis that has never been recovered.
1. Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert
Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is among the 17th century most notable artists. Painted in 1664, The Concert features two women and a man making music in a dimply lit parlor. Vermeer’s masterpiece was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a famous American philanthropist, at the end of the 19th century. In 1903, the piece went on display in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. On the 18th of March 1990, two burglars dressed as police officers entered the museum, claiming to be responding to a call. Once inside, stealing 13 famous artworks was a piece of cake. One of them was Vermeer’s The Concert, and other masterpieces include works by Degas and Rembrandt. The absolute record holder as the most valuable stolen artwork that has never been recovered, The Concert has an estimated value of $200 million. The combined value of the stolen art exceeds $500 million, making the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum heist America’s biggest art theft in history.