The World's Great Unsolved Art Heists
Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo;
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
10. Belfortmuseum, Bruges, Belgium (August 2010)
On an otherwise run-of-the-mill Wednesday afternoon, a man waltzed into this museum in the Belgian town of Bruges, gazed upon Salvador Dali's 1964 bronze statue Woman With Drawers (a reclining nude with a chest of drawers extended from her, uh, chest), and simply stuffed it in his bag. At twenty inches and 22 pounds, it stands as one of the easier art swipes in modern times. Despite surveillance cameras, the work was not protected by an alarm, and an accomplice probably helped stand in the way of the guards' gaze. The approximate value of this nifty little shoplift? A cool $150,000.
"Poppy Flowers"; AFP/Getty Images
After Van Gogh's $55 million Poppy Flowers was cut from its frame at this Cairo museum (known for having the Middle East's finest collections of 19th- and 20th-century art, including works by Gauguin, Monet, Manet, and Renoir), Egyptian officials arrested a young Italian couple at the airport. They had visited the museum's bathroom and left in a hurry afterwards. But it may have just been a bad meal, since no painting was found on their persons. After an investigation found only seven out of museum's 43 security cameras working properly, the culture ministry's head of fine art, was detained for negligence, and eleven museum officials and employees are being tried in court, facing three-year sentences. Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris offered a reward of one million Egyptian pounds ($175,300) for the painting, which to date has not been found. The irony of it all? The same painting was stolen from the same museum in 1978, only to surface in Kuwait two years later.
8. Chácara do Céu museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (February 2006)
Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Monet were all victims of grenade-wielding men who stormed this Brazilian museum and ran off with priceless paintings that had never been properly valued. If that wasn't enough, the gang of greedy thieves also found the time to mug a number of museum-goers in the process. Cleverly, they timed their heist while Carnival party shenanigans were keeping everyone distracted outside. According to museum officials, the thieves dismantled security cameras and then escaped amid the crowds, apparently dancing all the way to the bank.
7. Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, France (May 2010)
Art thievery is de riguer in France, where an average of 35 museum thefts have occurred annually for the last 15 years. But one of the most high profile and lucrative heists took place not at the Louvre, but at this modern art museum where a masked person one night grabbed more than $600 million of art by Picasso and Matisse, among others. A broken window and a sheared-off padlock were found at the scene of the crime. The heist became a national embarrassment, leading Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe to exclaim it was "an intolerable attack on Paris' universal cultural heritage." No one has been arrested to date.
"A Cavalier"; AP Photo
On a rainy Australian Sunday morning, amidst crowds of weekend art lovers, a self-portrait in oil on wood by Dutch Master Frans van Mieris called A Cavalier was swiftly stolen. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, all that was required for the theft was a "Phillips-head screwdriver to remove two $2.45 wall fastenings," which took about 60 seconds. No cameras were in the gallery, and guards were infrequent. At about $1 million, it's Australia's biggest art heist to date, and remains on the FBI's top ten art crimes list.
5. Edenhurst Gallery, West Hollywood, California (July 2002)
One Californian summer evening, thieves cut a hole through an art gallery roof, disabled the alarm, carefully removed two Maxfield Parrish murals from their frames, and delicately lifted them back up and out of the building. The bandits obviously knew what they were doing, since they left all the other artworks in the gallery unscathed. You have to hand it to their ambition. The aged and fragile mural panels (commissioned for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's 5th Avenue mansion in New York) were roughly five feet by six feet -- not the simplest things to shove under your arm. The pay off for their dexterity? About $4 million.
4. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (December 2002)
Another rooftop break-in (do museum officials never watch movies?), this time with a fifteen-foot ladder which descended through a broken window into The Netherlands' famed Van Gogh Museum. The two thieves tripped the alarm, but by the time cops showed up they had already disappeared with Van Gogh's View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, together valued at $30 million. Dutch police a year later convicted two men of the crime, but the paintings were sadly never recovered.
Black and white handout photo of the stolen
Rembrandt painting "Storm on the Sea of
Galilee;" AP Photo/Isabella Gardner Museum
This event, called "the biggest art heist in history," is so famous that it was even referenced in an episode of The Simpsons. At 1:24 am on the morning of March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the museum and proceeded to handcuff and duct tape the guards in the basement. In fewer than 90 minutes, the bandits went through the museum's Dutch Room and stole three Rembrandts, including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (the artist's only seascape), as well as works by Degas and Manet. The museum had no insurance at the time, and no information on the paintings surfaced despite a reward of $5 million. In a 2005 documentary called Stolen, a former Scotland Yard detective and a police informant stated they believed an Irish Republican Army faction had possession of the paintings.
2. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Quebec (September 1972)
The largest art theft in Canadian history occurred when figurines, jewelry, and 18 paintings worth more than $2 million (in 1972 dollars) were stolen by three armed and masked men at two o'clock in the morning. How did they get in? You guessed it-through a roof skylight. After binding and gagging the guards, they made off with works of Delacroix, Gainsborough, and a rare Rembrandt landscape. None have ever been recovered. Only in Canada would a museum spokesman praise the bandits' good taste: "They were discriminating thieves and had a fairly good idea of what they were looking for."
"Oratory of San Lorenzo"; Wikimedia Commons
One of the oldest unsolved art crimes has mafia written all over it. Caravaggio's Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence was removed by two thieves at the Oratory of San Lorenzo in the Sicilian city. Although you'd think its size of nearly six square yards would have betrayed its location by now, it's assumed the masterpiece has changed hands from one local mafia boss to another. Gerlando "The Rug" Alberti even tried to sell it outside of Italy to no avail, and various sources over the years say it was destroyed by earthquake, fire, or farm animals, depending on who you talk to. Its current value is estimated at $20 million, and it remains the most famous unsolved art crime on the FBI's books.