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The 11 Most Infamous Art Heists

Real-life art thieves are willing to take big risks to capture an illustrious piece of art. Read on to learn about 11 infamous art heists that are more exciting than fiction and fascinating.

1. The Loss of “Le Jardin”
Proving that it’s never too late to give up hope, a Henri Matisse oil painting stolen over 25 years ago was recovered earlier this month.

The piece (pictured to the right), titled “Le Jardin,” was taken captured by a still unidentified burglar who broke into the Moderna Museet with the help of a sledgehammer. It was the only art taken during the midnight burglary, and was recovered when an art dealer named Charles Roberts checked the piece against the Art Loss Registry, a database of stolen work.

The piece is in the process of being returned to the Moderna Museet. As of yet, no one has been charged for the theft.

2. Missing “Mona Lisa”

Perhaps the most famous painting of all time went missing in August 1911 and it took museum authorities over a day to notice.

The smile on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was too sweet for 32 year old thief Vincenzo Peruggia to resist. Peruggia, a former Louvre employee, simply removed the infamous lady from its frame and walked out of the Louvre with her tucked inconspicuously under his clothes.

“Mona Lisa” spent two years perched on Peruggia’s kitchen table before he contacted a dealer. The dealer contacted police, who swiftly arrested Peruggia. Peruggia was a painter who suffered from lead poisoning. He spent a mere six months in jail for the crime.

3. “The Last Judgment” Pirated

Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment” has a particularly exciting history. While being shipped to Italy to become part of a central altarpiece in Florence, the ship was attacked by pirates. The pirates sold the painting to the city of Gdansk, Poland. Today, the pirated painting remains in the Gdansk National Museum as all efforts to return the piece to Italy have failed. The famous piece of work depicts the dead rising from their graves and being weighed on a scale by Archangel Michael.

4. Popular Choice of Thieves: “The Scream”

“The Scream” by Munch is a popular choice for art thieves, with versions of the work being stolen twice in the last two decades.

Munch created four versions of “The Scream.” One version was stolen in 1994, when four thieves snatched the piece from the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, leaving a note that read “Thanks for the poor security.” It was recovered a few months later. Then, in 2004 two masked gunman held Munch Museum-goers at gunpoint while they stole the piece, as well as Munch’s “Madonna.” Two years passed before both painting were recovered, but both were damaged in the interim.

5. Plundering of European Art

Beginning in 1933, and lasting until the end of World War II, people working on behalf of the Nazi Party plundered an unheard of amount of art from European countries. In fact, according to Greg Bradsher writing for the “National Archives,” upwards of 20% of the art of Europe was looted by the Nazis.

Many pieces were recovered, but many more remain unaccounted for. Internationally, there has been a renewed interest in finding the missing pieces and returning them to their rightful owners.

6. St. Patrick’s Day Looting

Boston is known for many things, including its St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. St. Patrick’s Day March 18, 1990 developed into a particularly memorable one thanks to burglars who were disguised as police officers made away with 13 pieces of art from Beantown’s Isbabella Steward Gardner Museum.

Estimated at a value of $500 million dollars, the St. Patrick’s Day heist is the largest private property loss ever, according to Anthony Amore writing for “Harvard Magazine.”

A reward is offered for information and leads to the discovery of the works, but the pieces still remain unaccounted for.

7. Ghent Altarpiece Loses a Panel

One of the art world’s greatest mysteries is the location of “The Just Judges” panel of the Van Eyck brothers’ Gothic work of art.

Created for a cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, the multi-paneled 15th century piece was once seized by the French and then the Germans. Finally, at the end of World War I the Ghent Altarpiece returned home, to the cathedral of Saint Bavo. But soon afterward, during the night of April 10, 1934, two burglars broke into Saint Bavo and stole the lower left panel. It has not been recovered.

8. Five Painting Loss at Paris’ Musee d’art Moderne

In May of 2010, a man concealing his identity behind a mask snuck into the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and snuck out with five valuable paintings. The theft included a Picasso and a Matisse. Because the crime’s high visibility, the paintings won’t be easy to sell. The art is valued at $130 million dollars.

9. Three Paintings Taken from Whitworth Art Gallery

The criminals who stole three paintings from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester in April of 2003 may have been trying to make a point, not a buck.

Just one day after the three paintings (which include a Van Gogh and Picasso) were taken, police received a timely anonymous tip that helped them recover the pieces. The art was found in a bathroom, shoved inside a tube. A note inside the tube stated the burglars took the paintings to highlight the museum’s lacking security.

10. Heist of the “Madonna with the Yarnwinder”

A run of the mill tour of Drumlanrig Castle turned violent on an August morning in 2003. Two axe carrying men disguised themselves as tourists, overpowered the tour guide and grabbed the “Madonna with the Yarnwinder,” a painting believed to have been created by DiVinchi. As alarms sounded, the criminals quickly shimmied down an exterior wall and jumped in a beat-up Volkswagen.

As the criminal couple fled the scene, they startled two New Zealand tourists; one thief assured the tourists that they were simply police practicing how to respond to a theft at the Castle. The piece was recovered four years later and now hangs at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. Eight men were charged in connection with the crime.

11. Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt are Stolen

Perhaps the most notorious and violent art heist took place in December 2000 at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. A gunman held security staff at bay while accomplishes snatched two paintings by Renoir and one by Rembrandt.

Criminals blew up cars around the city in an effort to distract police and delay their response. Five years later, the three pieces were recovered.

How do you think enhanced security systems would have helped protect these works of art?

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