Stealing art looks like a lucrative business model in TV shows and movies. It seems like you’d nick an expensive painting, sell it in the black market, and make a whole lot of money – tax free. Easy peasy, right? Wrong! Stolen art is much harder to sell than you’d think. No one wants to buy a painting that the whole world knows is missing. So, who are these wise guys who thought they could beat the odds? Here’s our list of 10 art heists that are better than fiction. Let’s find out!
10. National Museum of Fine Arts, Paraguay (2002)
In 2002, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Asuncion, Paraguay was showing its most important exhibition ever. During that time, a gang of thieves posing as business people rented a vacant storefront just 80ft from the Museum. They even hired staff at the store. There was nothing weird about it. You’d change your mind if you checked 10ft under the store.
Within two months, the thieves managed to dig an underground tunnel to the museum. Twelve paintings went missing, including a Self-portrait by Tintoretto, Woman’s Head by Adolphe Piot, Landscape by Gustave Courbet, and The Virgin Mary and Jesus by Esteban Murillo. The police had no one to blame. Six years later Interpol found one of the paintings at a local black market for art in Misiones, Argentina. That’s all they found to date. The thieves are probably still vacationing somewhere in the Caribbean.
9. Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (2019)
If you’ve ever thought of peeing in a gold toilet, you just lost your chance. In 2019, Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist who gave the world the banana duct-taped to the wall, put on his first solo exhibition in the UK at the Blenheim Palace. Featured among his other works was the very controversial America, a fully-functioning gold toilet. It was once also offered to President Donald Trump. Unfortunately, after only a night in Winston Churchill’s water closet, the toilet disappeared. Not surprisingly, the first suspect was the artist himself. He’d done this kind of thing before. However, he says it wasn’t him. Someone had made off with $3.5 million of gold, tainted with the piss of over 100,000 people. The artist doesn’t believe America will return. It’s probably molten gold by now.
8. National Museum, Stockholm (2000)
If you’re looking for action, gun violence, creative planning, and a little bit of justice, you have reached the art heist of Hollywood’s dreams. The year was 2000, three men sporting ski masks strode right into the National Museum, with a machine gun and a couple of handguns. Museum security was caught off-guard. But, then so was Stockholm police. Two car bombs exploded in different parts of the city as the masked men rounded up artworks worth $36 million. A Self-portrait by Rembrandt, and Young Parisian and Conversation by Renoir, were the only victims of this grand theft. The coolest thing about this heist, however, was their getaway vehicle, a motorboat parked right outside the museum. The plan was genius, but it didn’t do the robbers any good. In a year, ten people were arrested. Within half a decade, police found all the paintings that went missing. Slow justice, but then again better late than never.
7. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (1990)
Thirty years have passed since two men dressed as police officers robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of 13 artworks valued at over half a billion dollars. It was the biggest art heist in the history of the United States of America. The Museum still mourns the loss of these monumental works. Empty frames hang where once displayed works by Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas. The FBI chased many leads, some leading to criminal organizations. A fair number of those suspects are now dead. That hasn’t stopped the Museum from releasing security footage and announcing a reward of $10 million for the return of the 13 artworks.
6. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (1994)
On May 7, 1994, the National Gallery Museum in Oslo had some midnight visitors. The polite burglars weren’t looking to wake anyone during their planned art heist. They quietly slid a ladder against one of the Museum windows, smashed it, and made a beeline for Edvard Munch’s The Scream. That’s all they wanted! They even brought wire cutters to get the job done quickly. It took them less than a minute to get out of there with the iconic painting. 50 seconds to be precise!
The robbers didn’t want the Museum to be confused about the theft. They left them a note, “Thanks for the poor security.” Even though Museum security could do little to stop the crime, they got the whole thing on tape. Not that it helped their case. The Museum got some serious flack for neglecting the safety of Norway’s most famous painting. Oslo police went on overdrive to find the missing painting. Sure enough, within three months, four men were arrested. The gang leader, Paul Enger, was a seasoned Munch burglar. But even he didn’t realize that his potential black-market buyers were really the police. He got 6 years in prison. The painting was found in a hotel room in Aasgaarstrand, 60 miles from Oslo.
5. Munch Museum, Oslo (2004)
The Munch Museum’s version of The Scream was taken ten years later in 2004 along with the Madonna. This time the robbers decided to wait for the Museum to open. Disguised as tourists, two men in balaclavas found themselves a tour guide to help them hunt for their prize. As soon as they got there, one of them pulled out a gun. Aiming it at the tour guide and an unarmed security guard, they fumbled as they unhooked The Scream and Madonna. According to witnesses, they were pretty clumsy about the whole affair.
Compared to the 1994 robbery, these guys held out much longer. They even got an unwilling getaway driver, Thomas Nataas, to temporarily stash the paintings for them. Nataas’ tour bus housed the paintings for a month till the conspirators had it moved. While the search went on, about 6 people were arrested, including Nataas, for their role in this great art heist. However, only three were charged with jail time. The prisoners include Petter Tharaldsen, Bjoern Hoen and Petter Rosevinge. They were sentenced to eight years in prison. In 2006, the Norwegian police struck gold. They found the paintings somewhere in “the Oslo area”. Sadly, the damage to the paintings isn’t exactly forgivable. Munch would probably be screaming.
4. Green Vault, Dresden (2019)
Dresden woke up pretty angry on the morning of November 25, 2019. A robbery had taken place at the Green Vault in the Royal Palace. Two unidentified perps had broken in through a secure window. Not so secure now, come to think of it. It isn’t surprising that experts believe the heist was an inside job. Four security guards have been pulled up for questioning. Dresden police are really serious about getting the jewelry back. They’re offering a reward of €500,000 for tips leading to the stolen property.
Even though this was a smash and grab, there was a fair bit of planning involved. The thieves started a fire at an electric panel close by, disarming the alarms. They crept in ax-in-hand and smashed through the displays. The thieves left with almost 100 pieces of 18th-century jewelry that once belonged to the ruler of Saxony. The Palace is looking at damages over a billion dollars. To add salt to the injury, the precious gems weren’t even insured. Turns out some of the Dresden loot has already started appearing on the dark web. The last thing the Royal Palace would want is their heritage to be put up for sale on Silk Road.
The getaway car, an Audi S6, was found burnt to a crisp at an underground parking lot. When the authorities do find the people responsible for the Dresden burglary, I hope they won’t be singing “we didn’t start the fire.”
3. National Gallery, London (1961)
When Goya’s Duke of Wellington went missing from the National Gallery in London, the authorities came up with a lot of theories to solve this art heist. None, however, prepared them to deal with the actual thief. Kempton Bunton was a retired bus driver. In 1961, Bunton climbed through a window in the men’s room of the Gallery and exited the premises with the painting. Bunton sent many letters to the authorities. Very Jack the Ripper, if I may say so. He kept the police up to date with the health of the painting and negotiated his demands. All he wanted was TV licenses for the poor. Ultimately, Bunton gave up on the licenses and returned the painting. He didn’t want to get caught, so he sent a left-luggage ticket to the Daily Mirror office. They called the police in, who rushed to the New Street station to find the painting without its frame. However, Bunton’s survivor’s guilt became a little too much for him to handle. He surrendered to the police in 1965.
2. Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris (2010)
Back in 2010, the spiderman art heist was all anyone could talk about in Paris. Vjeran Tomic, the brains and brawn behind the operation, had broken into MAM and stripped its walls of five precious paintings. He was an expert at scaling buildings, but he got lucky for the Museum’s security alarms were under repair. The original plan was to pick up only Fernand Leger’s Still Life with Candlestick and scram, but when he realized no one was paying attention he took his time and picked up four other paintings. Th spiderman wannabe stole Georges Braque’s Olive Tree near l’Estaque, Henri Matisse’s Pastoral, Modigliani’s Woman with a Fan, and Pablo Picasso’s Dove with Green Peas. Tomic took off with $112 million worth of art, only to be caught a year later. His associates, Jean-Michel Corvez, an art dealer, and Yonathan Birn, a Parisian watchmaker, stowed the works at the latter’s workshop. Birn claims to have destroyed the paintings, but Tomic believes they’re still out there hanging on a wall. All three of them were given between 6 to 8 years in the slammer.
1. The Louvre, Paris (1911)
Located in the Louvre, Paris, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. In 1911, she was abducted by a deranged Italian handyman. Vincenzo Perruggiato was commissioned by the museum to build protective glass cases for its paintings. He hid in a broom closet and waited for the Museum to shut down for the day. The next morning, he walked out with the painting safely tucked under his smock. Ever since she went missing people came to look at the spot where she once hung. Parisians called it the mark of shame. Vincenzo was caught only two years later when he tried to sell the painting to a Florentine Dealer, who promptly turned him over to law enforcement. He may not have succeeded in sending the Mona Lisa back to her homeland, but this art heist made her the most famous painting in the world. I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.