Stolen Masterpieces: 5 Famous Artworks That Are Still Missing

Everyone loves a good mystery and the art world has plenty of these. Here’s the story about five stolen masterpieces.

Apr 8, 2024By Tamara Bray, BA Archaeology and Art History

stolen masterpieces famous artworks missing


Throughout the ages, famous burglaries left officials scratching their heads, wondering how these crimes were pulled off. The art world is no stranger to these clever heists. While most of the stolen masterpieces were recovered, there are some that are still missing to this very day. Continue reading to learn more about the fascinating story behind how 5 famous artworks went missing.


1. Jan Van Eyck’s Stolen Masterpiece: The 12-Panel Ghent Altarpiece

stolen masterpieces ghent altarpiece
12 Panels of The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck, 1432, via NPR


The first artwork on our list of missing masterpieces was made by the Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert. It’s The Ghent Altarpiece which is also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This religious artwork consists of 12 individual oil-painted panels that were put together to create one large scene.


The 12-panel painting was created for the cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent. It depicted many religious scenes in each panel. The center panel, also the largest one, shows people paying homage to their god. The other scenes include biblical scenes showing Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ wearing a crown, and John the Baptist. This piece is considered one of the most important works of its time. The entire masterpiece, when opened, was at least 11 feet tall and 15 feet wide. So, how was such a large and heavy painting stolen multiple times? The Ghent Altarpiece’s troubles started in 1566 when Protestant militants stormed the St. Bravo cathedral. Luckily, the guards of the cathedral managed to dismantle all 12 panels and hide the artwork away safely.


stolen masterpieces panel ghent just judges
Panel showing The Just Judges by Jef van der Veken, 1945, via The Art Newspaper


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However, that was just the start of the artwork’s troublesome history. In 1795, the first emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, had his eye on the famous artwork. He successfully sent troops to steal four of the panels from the cathedral and displayed them at the famous Louvre Museum in Paris. They were eventually returned to Belgium.


In 1815, six of the panels were sold by a vicar at the cathedral in order to repay some of his mounting debts. The six panels passed hands until they landed with the King of Prussia and were displayed in Germany. Years later, at the end of World War I, the six panels were returned in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles.


The artwork was stolen yet again in 1934 by stockbroker and businessman Arsène Goedertie. He sent a group of men to the cathedral one evening to steal the bottom left panel known as The Just Judges. Goedertie had sliced the panel in half, leaving the other half for the police to find, and demanded a ransom for the panel. The Belgian Minister refused, so the panel is still missing to this day. You can still check out the entire 12-panel Ghent Altarpiece on display, with an impressive replica of the missing panel.


2. Poppy Flowers by Vincent Van Gogh

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Poppy Flowers by Vincent van Gogh, 1887, via Wikimedia


Vincent van Gogh’s artwork Poppy Flowers was stolen twice. This simple oil painting was created only three years before the artist’s death. The painting is so coveted that it was stolen twice from the same museum.


Mohamed Khalil Museum in Cairo obtained the $55 million painting and had it proudly on display until 4 June 1977 when the beloved painting was stolen. At the time, the government gave no details about the crime, but the theft was thought to have happened during a move between the museum’s two palaces. The Egyptian government could only offer a theory about a group of bandits who stole the painting. However, the painting was eventually recovered two years later in Kuwait. The location of where the painting was found was never disclosed to the public.


museum mohamed khalil
Mohamed Khalil Museum entrance, via The National News


The Mohamed Khalil Museum was in for another surprise when the painting was stolen again in August of 2010. The museum reported that the painting had been removed from the frame with a pair of box cutters. At the time of the robbery, Egypt’s minister of culture Farouk Hosni announced to the public that the suspects had been apprehended. Hosni then retracted his statement as this wasn’t true.


The robbery took place during the day, in broad daylight. On the day of the robbery, only 7 out of the 43 security cameras were working. The painting is still missing, and officials are no closer to finding out who the culprit is. In an interview, Egyptian interior minister Habib Al-Adly said that he believed that a museum employee participated in the theft or stole the painting. Hopefully, one day we might have some answers.


3. Reading Girl in White and Yellow by Henri Matisse

stolen masterpieces Matisse reading girl
Reading Girl in White and Yellow by Henri Matisse, 1919, via Greynotgrey blog


French painter Henri Matisse, who was known for his Fauvist artworks, was also a victim of artwork theft. Sometime between the 15th and 16th of October in 2012, Matisse’s painting The Reading Girl in White and Yellow went missing from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.


Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London was also stolen. Police arrived at the scene of the crime at 3:00 in the morning to find the paintings missing. Nobody knows how the thieves managed to steal these famous artworks.


Three Romanian men were arrested as suspects. One was Radu Dogaru, whose mother claimed that she burnt the paintings in her stove in order to hide the evidence. The Irish Times reported Forensic investigators tested the remains of the ashes and made a surprising discovery. They found wood, canvas, staples, and paint fragments that support her statement. This meant that the forensic investigators would need to test these remains further. Hopefully, the painting is still out there unharmed and will eventually make its return to the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.


4. Rembrandt’s Missing Masterpiece: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

stolen masterpieces storm sea galilee
Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, via Wikimedia


Rembrandt van Rijn is known for his famous paintings that contain biblical scenes and religious figures. During his career, Rembrandt only painted one seascape known as The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The painting shows the Biblical story of Jesus calming the sea. The scene depicts Jesus Christ and his disciples caught out in a storm while sailing the sea of Galilee. According to Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus calmed the sea and left his disciples in awe.


This moody seascape of Rembrandt’s was stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. At the time, this was one of the biggest art heists in the USA. The painting was stolen by two men who posed as police officers. They were allowed into the museum by museum workers because of this. The workers were shocked when the fake police officers tied them up and started cutting out the paintings from their frames. In total, 13 artworks were stolen.


These stolen artworks included paintings made by famous artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, and Govert Flinck. Today, the empty frames still hang in their original spots as a reminder of what was lost and in the hope that one day these works might be returned.


5. Carl Spitzweg’s Stolen Masterpiece: The Poor Poet

spitzweg poor poet
The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg, 1839, via Wikimedia


The last missing masterpiece on our list is German painter Carl Spitzweg’s work called The Poor Poet. Spitzweg’s piece is often seen as comedic because of the old umbrella that’s shown as magically floating in the air. Many art historians think that Spitzweg wanted to depict a starving artist. The work was stolen twice.


The first happened in December of 1976. The unlikely thief was a German performance artist called Ulay. Around midday, Ulay walked into the National Gallery in Berlin, lifted the work off the wall, and simply walked out the emergency exit with it. In a bizarre twist, Ulay hung the painting in a friend’s home and told the police that he would return the work only if the director of the gallery came to look at it. The painting was successfully returned to the gallery. The painting was stolen once again by two thieves in disguise in the Schloss Charlottenburg’s Galerie der Romantik. It was never seen again.



What is the current status of the investigation into the missing Ghent Altarpiece panel?

The current investigation status of the missing Ghent Altarpiece panel, known as The Just Judges, remains unresolved. The panel was stolen in 1934 by Arsène Goedertier, who demanded a ransom but passed away, leaving the panel’s whereabouts a mystery. Despite various theories and extensive searches, the original panel has not been recovered, and a replica currently replaces it in the altarpiece.


Is there any information about the security measures that were in place at the Mohamed Khalil Museum during the thefts of Poppy Flowers?

Regarding the security measures at the Mohamed Khalil Museum during the theft of Poppy Flowers by Vincent van Gogh, details are scarce. The painting was stolen in 2010 under circumstances highlighting significant security lapses, including only 7 out of 43 security cameras being operational. The theft occurred in broad daylight, suggesting inadequate security measures were in place, although specific protocols have not been disclosed.


What is the value of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee today?

The value of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, if it were to be sold today, is challenging to estimate due to its historical significance and the fact it remains missing since the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. However, considering the painting’s artistic importance and the inflation of art market prices, its value would likely be in the tens of millions of dollars, if not significantly higher.

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By Tamara BrayBA Archaeology and Art HistoryTamara is a content writer who studied Archaeology and Art History at the University of South Africa and has an interest in African art. Tamara prefers using her degree to write content about Art History and Archaeology rather than spend her days in the hot sun at a dig site. When she’s not writing Tamara spends her time reading and practicing her creative writing.