10 Impressive Art Heists


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.