When three men walked into the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich, Switzerland, on Feb. 12, 2008, the masterpieces didn't stand a chance. In broad daylight, one man pulled a gun while the other two grabbed the four paintings closest to the door. It seems to be pure luck that they grabbed the most valuable piece in the museum's collection, Paul Cézanne's "Boy in the Red Waistcoat," [source: Associated Press]. The thieves got out within minutes, leaving stunned museum patrons and staffers lying face-down on the floor.
The four paintings together are worth approximately $163 million, making it one of the biggest art thefts ever in Europe -- and Europe has seen its share of art theft [source: Associated Press]. Two weeks before the Bürle heist, two Picassos were stolen from another museum nearby. Thieves grabbed 20 paintings from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam in 1991 and a couple more in 2002. The Louvre in Paris lost the "Mona Lisa" in 1911. And "The Scream" was taken from Oslo museums twice in 10 years. Despite the threat of jail time and the unmistakable (read: unsellable) fame of the stolen goods, art theft has become more common in the last couple of decades, perhaps due to a combination of underfunded security and rising art prices.
The 2008 Bürle robbery proves that security doesn't mean much when thieves are willing to use force. Art heists are increasingly conducted at gunpoint -- a brute means of ensuring that they get what they came for. But the most impressive art heists are the ones in which the criminals rely on something more than physical threats. We'll look at 10 of those in this article, starting with one that begs the age-old question: How many thieves does it take to dig a tunnel into a museum?
The National Fine Arts Museum in Paraguay, 2002
In July 2002, Paraguay hosted the most valuable art exhibition in its history. Then a group of criminals broke in and stole five paintings.
As it turns out, the break-in had been in the making for months. An unidentified man rented a store 80 feet (25 meters) from the National Fine Arts Museum in Asuncion. Authorities believe he then recruited people to help him dig a tunnel 10 feet (3 meters) underground, running from the shop to the museum. After the presumed two months it took to complete the tunnel, the thieves used it to enter the museum undetected on July 30, 2002.
The thieves left with more than a million dollars' worth of art. The stolen works included "Self Portrait" by Esteban Murillo, "The Virgin Mary and Jesus" by Gustave Coubert and Adolphe Piot's "Landscape." As of early 2012, the paintings were still missing [source: Associated Press].
The next heist on our list has an equally impressive plan but a happier ending.
The Swedish National Museum, 2000
The gang who robbed the National Museum in Sweden in December 2000 knew their stuff: A machine gun will get you the haul, a bomb will distract police, and cars with flat tires can't respond to an alarm.
Their distraction tactics were superb. While three men were inside the museum, accomplices set off two car bombs on the opposite ends of town. Local police scattered. At the same time, other accomplices were laying spikes on the roads around the museum. While one man stood inside the museum with a gun, two others located the targeted paintings.
They were in an out in a half hour, leaving with two Renoirs, "Young Parisian" and "Conversation with the Gardner," and a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The paintings were valued at $30 million combined. The getaway vehicle was a speedboat (the museum is on the waterfront).
Despite the slickness of the heist, less than two weeks later police had arrested eight men, all of whom were convicted and served jail time. One of the accomplices was a criminal lawyer brought in to negotiate the ransom.
However, the works didn't start reappearing until several years later. During a drug raid in 2001, Swedish narcotics police stumbled upon "Conversation with the Gardener" [source: BBC]. In 2005, Danish police recovered the Rembrandt self-portrait during an attempted sale in Copenhagen [source: BBC]. The FBI lists "Young Parisian" as also having been recovered [source: FBI].
Clearly, any theft is made easier when the thieves are armed. But what about thieves who use costume-shop props?
The Isabella Gardner Museum, 1990
With the help of goofy fake mustaches, two men managed to steal between $200 million and $300 million in paintings from Boston's Isabella Gardner Museum. At around 1:30 a.m. on March 18, 1990, thieves knocked on the museum's door. The museum guards on duty looked out and saw what appeared to be two police officers -- both with big black mustaches that they would later recall as being laughable. The mustached officers said they were there to check out a reported disturbance. The guards let them in to look around.
Within minutes, the guards found themselves bound, and the thieves spent the next hour or so gathering three Rembrandts, five Degas sketches, a Vermeer, a Manet and a bronze eagle that topped a framed Napoleon-era banner. An alarm went off while they were tearing one of the Rembrandts from its frame, but they located the source and smashed it silent. The police never showed up because it was simply an internal alarm meant to tell guards when people were getting too close to the art [source: Kurkjian]. Finally, the thieves told the guards that the museum would be "hearing from" them, presumably with a ransom demand, and loaded their getaway car in two trips [source: Bell].
But the museum never received a ransom demand. As of 2012, the thieves are still at large, none of the works have been recovered and the FBI continues to investigate the crime. The district attorney of Boston has even promised not to prosecute whoever returns the works [source: Kurkjian]. The museum has offered a $5 million reward [source: Associated Press]. On March 18, 2013, the FBI announced major developments in the case, including identification of the perpetrators, and launched a public campaign to search for information about the missing artwork.
While the Gardener Museum is the site of the biggest heist in history, it wasn't the heist of the biggest work of art.
The Henry Moore Foundation, 2005
If it's about 12 feet (3.6 meters) long, 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall, 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide and weighs over 2 tons (1,814 kilograms), is it worth the trouble to steal? That's a question that three men must have asked themselves after targeting a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, "Reclining Figure," for a potential heist. Of course, thievery involving such massive dimensions would require the use of a construction foreman's tools. Armed with a crane-equipped Mercedes flatbed truck and a Mini Cooper, these crooks had the tools for the take [source: BBC].
In December 2005, the two vehicles rolled into the Henry Moore Foundation courtyard at night, loaded the hippopotamus-sized sculpture onto the flatbed truck and drove away. The entire job took 10 minutes [source: Telegraph].
Thought to be worth about $4.6 million, it is likely that the sculpture was cut up, shipped abroad and melted down for only about $2,300 worth of scrap metal [source: Townsend and Davies]. Charles Hill, currently a private art detective in Scotland, believes the bronze piece was stolen by a group of traveling criminals. It's likely that the metal was shipped to Rotterdam and then to China to be used for electrical parts. No arrests have been made.
On the next page, we'll share the story of a masterful heist in which nothing of value was stolen but 15 thieves were convicted.
A New York Art Warehouse, 1987
Sometimes it's hard to sell fake artwork, so a London art dealer and a Manhattan antiques dealer came up with a plan to steal from themselves and still get paid. The antiques dealer, Nedjatollah Sakhai, hired a gang to rob a Queens warehouse filled with forged goods. The art dealer, Houshang Mahboubian, owned the warehouse and all of the tacky "treasures" inside. Afterward, Mahboubian planned to file a claim and collect $18 million from his insurers [source:Johnson].
But, like Mahboubian's failed attempts to sell the forged artworks in the first place, the planned robbery was a bust. After receiving a tip, police staked out the warehouse and waited for the would-be burglars to arrive.
Although convicted of conspiracy, burglary and attempted grand larceny, Sakhai and Mahboubian maintained their innocence. Later, the case file grew as 13 other defendants pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the case.
In contrast, the next heist on our list involved just one lone thief.
The Paris Museum of Modern Art, 2010
It reads like it's taken from a television episode or built for a blockbuster: On a Wednesday evening, a Paris museum was robbed of several priceless works by one thief without a single alarm being sounded. It may sound like fiction, but this actually happened in May 2010.
A thief cut through a gate padlock and broke a window, then robbed the Paris Museum of Modern Art of five paintings without setting off the alarms (which, as it turns out, weren't functioning at the time) or alerting the guards. The works, all considered priceless, included "Pastoral" by Henri Matisse, "Olive Tree near Estaque" by Georges Braque, "Woman with a Fan" by Amedeo Modigliani, "Still Life with Chandeliers" by Fernand Leger, and "Le pigeon aux petits-pois" by Pablo Picasso [source: Iverson].
For the works by Picasso and Matisse, it's just another routine switching of hands. The Art Loss Register lists 660 Picassos and 121 Matisses as having been reported stolen -- more than the work of any other artists [source: Haq].
From one standpoint, it's intriguing that the most recognizable artists represent the most pocketed paintings. The works' resale is nearly impossible, given the artists' fame and distinctive styles. Regardless, this particular heist remains unsolved, leaving the thief to admire his or her eye-catching spoils.
The thieves responsible for the next heist weren't so lucky. Read on to learn why appropriate accessories are as important in robberies as in any other social event.
The Van Gogh Museum, 2002
On the morning of Dec. 7, 2002, two men, one of whom was an international art thief known as "The Monkey" for his ability to elude police, climbed a ladder to access a window of the VanGogh Museum in Amsterdam. Although they did wear hats to disguise themselves, the thieves used little more than agility to steal two famous works.
In plain view of a busy park, they climbed the ladder to a window, broke the glass with their towel-wrapped elbows and, after only a few minutes, exited by sliding down a rope. They took with them "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" and "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen," which are worth about $10 million apiece.
"The Monkey," Dutch-born Octave Durham, lived up to his nickname. Although the two thieves were caught on the museum's security cameras, they avoided capture for two years. In 2004, police arrested Durham in Spain and his accomplice in Amsterdam, and later convicted them using DNA evidence from the hats found at the scene.
Neither painting has been recovered, and experts wonder whether the culprits behind the heist are smart enough to take advantage of an outdated Dutch law granting art thieves ownership of stolen items 20 or 30 years after the crime [source: Bell].
On the next page, learn about a $19-million heist that may have only been a cover-up for another crime.
The Munch Museum, 2004
They arrived with a .357-caliber Magnum pistol in hand and left with a pair of a great Norwegian artist's masterpieces. But the thieves who yanked Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and "Madonna" off the walls of the Munch Museum in Norway had to ask where to go to find what was on their list. As nobody argued with their self-checkout firepower, they were pointed to the paintings and left the museum with an estimated $19-million haul [source: BBC].
Oddly, the two paintings spent about a month hidden in a racing tour bus. Thomas Nataas, a European drag racer, lives in the bus during race tours. An acquaintance asked him if he could store something on the bus, and although Nataas refused at first, under duress he agreed to secret away the two celebrated works. Later, the thieves transferred the paintings to another vehicle [source: Jones].
Iver Stensrud, a veteran detective leading the Munch investigation, believed the museum heist was organized to draw attention away from another robbery investigation, one that had led to the death of a senior police officer. In 2006, shortly after a conviction was made for this other robbery, the police received a tip. "The Scream" and "Madonna" were found, slightly damaged but intact, in the back of a van.
The series of robberies discussed on the next page don't fall strictly under the definition of heists, but they constitute by far the largest theft of artworks in the past century.
Nazi Art Thefts and the Monuments Men
Although it was more pillaging and plundering than sophisticated thievery, the German army confiscated and stored countless treasures as they fought through Europe during WWII. The thefts went beyond the cases of occupiers looting captured cities: Adolf Hitler and Herman Goering, his second in command, would choose artworks and cultural treasures for their collections and then simply take them [source: Braver].
A group of specialist soldiers from the United States military were assigned to search, safeguard and eventually return the artworks and other artifacts to their rightful owners. Called Monuments Men, they saved all sorts of stolen items from black market sale or unintentional destruction. Although some works, like Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man," have eluded the Monuments Men and may never be recovered, there have been a number of major successes. In April 1949, for example, they proudly packed $80 million worth of paintings by Botticelli, Rubens, Rembrandt and many others into shipping crates and returned the works to Wiesbaden [source: Bailey].
In November 2007, a pair of photo albums cataloguing the priceless goods stolen from Paris art dealers during the war was unveiled in Washington. Originally found at Hitler's Bavarian mountain shelter and later forgotten in an attic with other wartime keepsakes by an American soldier, the leather-bound relics, numbered 6 and 8, were part of a Nazi catalogue of stolen artwork. Specialists who continue the work of the Monuments Men are hopeful that these albums will help in the continued hunt for stolen items [source:MacAskill].
The final heist on our list was much smaller -- just one 30-by-21-inch (77-by-53-centimeter) painting -- but the audacity of it made international headlines and changed the way the public looks at art.
The Louvre, 1911
In 1911, da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" was stolen from the Louvre museum in Paris in a theft that shocked the world and brought the painting to fame. On August 20, Vincenzo Perugia, a handyman in the museum, finished his shift and hid inside an art supply closet with two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. After the museum closed, they carefully lifted the 200-pound, framed and glass-enclosed painting from the wall, stripped da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" out, hid the painting under a blanket and scurried off to catch a train out of Paris. The masterpiece disappeared for two years.
Museum staff didn't know the "Mona Lisa" was missing until the next day. When they saw the empty space on the wall, they assumed the painting had been removed as part of a project to photograph the Louvre's inventory. After a frequent patron asked a guard to query the photographers for their timeline, the museum staff realized the theft and called the police, but there were no clues at the scene [source: NPR].
Perugia was captured two years later. He claimed the theft was a patriotic attempt to return the painting to Italy, da Vinci's homeland. But he was caught trying to sell the painting to a dealer, who immediately called the police when he realized Perugia was indeed in possession of the highly publicized stolen painting, which had been known as a masterpiece only in select circles of the art world before its theft.
For more information on art heists and related topics, including how some thieves sell stolen works, look over the links below.
Stephen Wiltshire is a British autistic savant who draws entire cityscapes, in pen, entirely from memory. HowStuffWorks catches up for a conversation.
More Great Links
- Associated Press. "2 Paintings Stolen From Zurich Museum Didn't Get Far." New York Times. Feb. 20, 2008. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/20/world/europe/20zurich.html
- Associated Press. "$163 Million Art Heist in Zurich." CBS News. Feb. 11, 2008. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/11/world/main3815033.shtml
- Associated Press. "Munch masterpieces join a daunting list of stolen paintings." Aug. 8, 2004 (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004-08-23-stolen-paintings_x.htm
- Associated Press. "Solve Famed Boston Art Heist, Get $5M." June 23, 2010. CBS News. June 23, 2010. (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/16/national/main6303926.shtml
- Bailey, Ronald. "The Monuments Men: Rescuing Art Plundered by Nazis." HistoryNet. April 19, 2007. (Jan 12, 2012) http://www.historynet.com/the-monuments-men-rescuing-art-plundered-by-the-nazis.htm
- BBC News. "Greatest Art Heists in History." (Jan. 10, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/3590106.stm
- BBC News. "Scream Stolen from Norway Museum." Aug. 22, 2004. (Jan. 11, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3588282.stm
- BBC. "Swedish National Museum Rembrandt recovered." Sept. 16, 2005. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4252568.stm
- BBC. "Swedish National Museum stolen Renoir recovered." April 6, 2001. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1263808.stm
- Bell, Rachael. "Sensational art heists from Mona Lisa to Munch's The Scream." Crime Library (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters_outlaws/outlaws/major_art_thefts/index.html
- Braver, Rita. "Rescuing Nazi-Looted Art." CBS News. Feb. 11, 2009. (Jan 12, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/27/sunday/main3755983.shtml
- Brooks, David. "Two Van Gogh Works Stolen from the Van Gogh Museum." Van Gogh Gallery. Dec. 7, 2002 (Jan 12, 2012) http://www.vggallery.com/news/20021207.htm
- FBI. "Theft Notices & Recoveries - Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum." (Jan. 12, 2012) http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/isabella/
- FBI. "Art Crime Team. Young Parisian recovered." (Jan. 11, 2012) http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/art-crime-team
- Haq, Husna. "Paris Art Heist: The Chances of Recovery Aren't Good." May 20, 2010 (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0520/Paris-art-heist-The-chances-of-recovery-aren-t-good
- Harnischfeger, Uta. "Zurich art museum robbed of a Cézanne, a Degas, a Van Gogh and a Monet." International Herald Tribune. Feb. 11, 2008 (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/02/11/europe/zurich.php
- Iverson, Jeffrey T. "The French Art Heist: Who Would Steal Unsaleable Picassos?" May 20, 2010 (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1990921,00.html
- Johnson, Kirk. "2 Are Convicted in Theft of Art at Warehouse." April 11, 1987 (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/11/nyregion/2-are-convicted-in-theft-of-art-at-warehouse.html
- Jones, Jonathan. "Was the Theft of Munch's 'The Scream' Really About Art?" Feb. 16, 2007 (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2007/feb/17/art.arttheft
- Kurkjian, Stephen. "Secrets Behind the Largest Art Heist in History." The Boston Globe. March 13, 2005 Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.boston.com/news/specials/gardner_heist/heist/
- Lendon, Brad. "Reward Beats Risk for Art Thieves." CNN. Feb. 14, 2008 (Jan. 13, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/02/14/art.theft/index.html
- MacAskill, Ewen. "New discovery sheds light on Nazi art theft." The Guardian. Nov. 1, 2007. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/nov/01/usa.art
- NPR. "The theft that made the 'Mona Lisa' a masterpiece." July 30, 2011 (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2011/07/30/138800110/the-theft-that-made-the-mona-lisa-a-masterpiece
- The Telegraph. "Art Theft: Some of the famous art heists of the past 100 years." (Jan. 11, 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8702071/Art-theft-some-of-the-famous-art-heists-of-the-last-100-years.html?image=1
- Townsend, Mark and Davies, Caroline. "Henry Moore case solved." The Guardian. May 16, 2009. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/may/17/henry-moore-sculpture-theft-reclining-figure
- Treasures of the World. "Theft of the Mona Lisa." PBS. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/mona_nav/main_monafrm.html