Art theft has been one of the most lucrative crimes for hundreds of years, providing thieves with the greatest financial pay-off in the smallest amount of time and/or weight carried. Paintings by celebrated artists around the globe are often valued at tens of millions of dollars and sit in museums that aren’t necessarily as secured as one might think. Several of these institutions have been proven to only keep a minimum number of guards on duty in the evening and some still lack metal detectors and adequate alarm systems. Little is known about the inner workings of the art theft world, as only 5-10% of stolen paintings are ever recovered.
When burglarizing art on such a recognizable scale, thieves know that they won’t be able to sell these works publicly or they’ll risk getting caught. However, private collectors have been known to hire criminals to acquire a piece and then pay them a significant cut of the painting’s resale value. If they aren’t commissioned by private buyers, thieves steal art as a means of getting ransom money from the original owners – ie. the museum itself. Then there are the burglars who do this for sport, thrilled by the scale of what they manage to accomplish stealing. Over $3 billion worth of art is stolen and resold each year, making it one of the most financially rewarding crimes to tap into besides drug dealing. Below, we’ve compiled some of the greatest art thefts of all time.
10 Paris Museum of Modern Art
In 2010, a lone burglar broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art by smashing a window and breaking through a padlock. He then donned a mask and carefully removed paintings from their frames – including works by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and more. The total combined worth of the stolen goods was hundreds of millions of euros and the case revealed serious failings in the museums security system. None of the three guards on duty saw anything and the art has never been recovered.
9 New York Art Warehouse
The burglary of a New York art warehouse in 1987 is perhaps the most brazen of all the crimes on this list, as it was commissioned by the owner of the warehouse himself in an attempt to defraud his insurers of over $18 million. Mr. Houshang Mahboubian, an art dealer, hired a ring of thieves to do the dirty work but one of them ended up tipping off the police who later raided the robbery as it was taking place. The art dealer ended up being indicted on charges of conspiracy, burglary and attempted grand larceny.
8 Van Gogh Museum
In December of 2002, burglars used a ladder to climb to the roof of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and stole two paintings worth a combined $30 million in just a matter of minutes. They managed to bypass security cameras by entering through the roof and had plenty of time to escape once the alarms started sounding. Two suspects were arrested in 2004, although the paintings were never found. To this day, the museum is still offering a 100,000 euro reward for the return of the paintings in good condition.
7 Drumlanrig Castle
In 2003, four men acting as tourists walked into the Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland and stole the Madonna, a piece by Leonardo da Vinci, using nothing more than an axe. They threatened to kill a tour guide with the axe, then pulled the painting off the wall and escaped through a window as alarms went off. The painting was worth $40 million and was ultimately found in Glasgow in 2007, leading to its safe return.
6 The Louvre Museum
The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris is almost baffling in its simplicity. An Italian criminal named Vincenzo Perugia had moved to Paris in 1908 and had worked at the Louvre for a while, observing the rituals of the museum workers. He then went to the gallery in the same white smock that the employees wore and hid overnight. He then removed the Mona Lisa from its frame and walked out the door once the museum opened the next day, carrying it under the smock. He was later arrested after attempting to sell it in Italy.
5 National Museum of Anthropology
It was Christmas Eve of 1985 in Mexico City and none of the eight guards on duty seemed to have noticed that robbers had made their way into the famed National Museum of Anthropology due to a malfunctioning alarm system that had broken down three years (YEARS!) prior. The robbers made off with 140 Mayan and Aztec artifacts – the largest haul of pre-Columbian art objects ever. The guards only realized what was missing the next day, when they noticed the glass had been removed on seven display cases. The total value of the stolen goods was $20 million.
4 Buhrle Collection
In 2008, thieves decked out in ski masks and brandishing guns walked into the private Buhrle Museum in Zurich and left with $164 million worth of paintings by Cezanne, Van Gogh and Monet in broad daylight. There were no special tricks and no elaborate plans – the robbery happened far too easily and was a huge wake up call for museums in Europe to step up their security systems and surveillance. Up until the theft, the private museum didn’t even have metal detectors installed. To date, the culprits have not been found.
3 Kunsthal Museum
Dubbed “the heist of the century” by several publications, thieves broke into the Kunsthal Museum in 2013 through a rear emergency exit and stole over $24 million worth of Monet, Picasso, Matisse and more within just three minutes. A Romanian man later pled guilty to the crime and is now suing the museum for making the heist too easy and not using alarms to protect the valuable artwork. His mother claims to have burned the paintings to protect her son and authorities found corresponding ash and nails matching the same era as the paintings in her fireplace.
2 National Museum of Sweden
In a dramatic heist straight out of a movie, burglars used car bombs at opposite ends of the city to distract police then laid out spikes on the roads to slash their tires. Three men then entered Sweden’s National Museum and then split up, leaving one to point a machine gun at the guards and the two others to set about stealing artwork. The entire thing took half an hour and they made off with over $30 million worth of Rembrandt and Renoir paintings. Their victory didn’t last long however – two weeks later, eight men associated to the heist were arrested.
1 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
In 1990, two thieves made their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the early hours of the morning. Realizing that the city would be distracted by the St-Patrick’s Day celebrations happening, the two men dressed up as police officers and claimed they were responding to a disturbance in the museum’s courtyard. They then handcuffed and duct-taped the two guards on duty and stole thirteen works of art totalling a whopping $500 million. The theft remains unsolved to this day and is the largest art theft of all time.