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Most famous art thefts in history? There are so many! The theft of works of art is at first sight an absurd phenomenon. The paintings are unique. You steal a famous one and then who’s going to buy it? How are you going to turn your art loot into cash? Especially in a world like ours where information and news spread so fast. Yet the theft of works of art has always been and continues to be very widespread.

The Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia – The most famous art THEFTS in history

Vincenzo Peruggia is certainly the most famous of the art thieves. The name may not sound immediately familiar, but its history probably does. It is in fact the man who stole the Mona Lisa. In the night between 20 and 21 August 1911, being an employee of a company hired by the Louvre to work on the frames and glass of the museum’s works and knowing the rooms, he managed to sneak into a wardrobe and spend the night there without to be seen. So on Monday morning, the day the museum was closed, he slipped out at 7 with the painting under his coat and passing through a service door. 

And the beauty is that except for a witness who saw him throw the knob of the broken door to get out, no one noticed anything until Tuesday morning, when two artists, visiting the museum, realized the disappearance of the painting and they reported the fact to the manager and consequently to the police. For some time the painting remained in Peruggia’s apartment and many hypotheses about the theft were made. For a short while, even among the main suspects were two well-known names in art history: Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire. But the two managed to prove they were innocent and in the meantime the mystery was resolved with the arrest of Peruggia in Italy. 

Why was the Monalisa stolen?

But why had the Italian decorator for years in France decided to steal the Leonardo? According to him it is about patriotism. In fact, the culprit came to light precisely because he wanted to resell the work in Florence and the director of the Uffizi museum intervened. Peruggia’s excuse was that Italy, Leonardo’s country of origin, would have been able to exploit the Mona Lisa much better than the French. And some Italians even believed him, so much so that his sentence went from 12 to 7 months on appeal. 

An art theft therefore among the most famous in the world and which ended with the discovery of the work but which above all changed the approach to art and its reproducibility. In fact, having appeared in all the newspapers both in 1911 when it was stolen and in 1914 once it was found, the Mona Lisa has become the most famous, appreciated and photographed work in the world. 

The theft of Munch’s Scream in Oslo

Besides the Mona Lisa many other important and already known works in history have been stolen over the years and one of the most famous examples and which all the newspapers have reported is Munch’s Scream stolen from the Oslo Museum in 2004. This story is also interesting. Stolen in 2004 for several years the police had suspects on many characters, some of whom were arrested and fined hundreds of thousands of euros. Even a reward in this case of about two hundred thousand euros jumped out for anyone who was aware of information such was the media attention and the desire of the Norwegian government to recover the Scream and another work, Munch’s Madonna stolen in the same occasion. 

This too has a happy ending, given that in 2006 the two works were finally recovered, restored and returned to the public. 

But is it ultimately a coincidence? Let’s think about it. There are two variables that make the happy ending of this story almost obvious with some excellent research by the police and secret agencies. The first is simple: a work known in a time when information travels fast is almost impossible to resell on the black market. 

The second may perhaps seem more complex to note but then it becomes equally clear: the authorities and the museum were willing to pay anyone with information. Contrary to many other situations, in fact for the works one is willing to come to terms with the terrorists. it’s simple: the great works of art in museums are covered by insurance companies which are sometimes required to pay the entire value. With works worth 10 million, paying less than a tenth to get information or pay the ransom obviously seems almost nothing, despite the stratospheric figure. However, this allows in the most fortunate cases to recover the work. 

Why steal a work of art?

Why then steal a work of art? There is a myth in common thought. Theft on commission. In fact, it is commonly thought that the theft of a work of art is requested by a very wealthy collector to increase the value of his collection. And certainly some TV series made us believe it. But then there aren’t so many real stories that prove it. Among other things, many collectors are aware that the purchase of a work of art, legal or illegal, could over time decades later turn into a new sale and given the almost impossible to sell such a work famous on the market even after some time, the acquisition would in a certain sense be non-repayable.

Lucas Cranach and the French writer’s other thefts

Although these rich collectors do not exist, there are sometimes eccentric thieves. The story tells of a French writer who was arrested in 2003 after stealing great masterpieces from over 100 museums around the world, without being initially caught. This time, however, no happy ending, despite the arrest. In fact, it is said that once discovered, in order not to find his loot, the writer hid everything in his mother’s apartment. However, in order to eliminate the evidence of the thefts, the mother literally burned and cut into small pieces many many masterpieces. The most famous of these was a painting by Lucas Cranach, now lost. The writer’s trick for fooling museum security, however, was simple enough. First of all he had an accomplice: his fiancée and then he tactically chose his victims on small canvases that were easy to cut and hide under jackets. A real masterstroke! 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – The most famous art THEFTS in history

Unfortunately, like this one there are other stories that do not end well! Like that of the theft in 1990 of 13 pieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection in Boston.’s Concerto a 3 Vermeer. As is known in the world there are only about thirty works attributed to the artist and stealing one of these obviously makes the difference in history. The total loot from the theft of the 13 works according to the FBI amounts to about 500 million dollars. And the reward in this case offered by the collector’s private museum is also among the highest in the world. Despite this, unfortunately none of the masterpieces stolen at dawn on March 18, 1990 from the museum has ever been recovered. 

The theft of the Rembrandt and the size of the work

Another of the reasons behind the theft of works of art and of paintings in particular is easily understood but perhaps not so obvious. It’s all about the portability value ratio. In fact, let’s pretend for 30 seconds that we are thieves. And also to have the choice between $5 million in cash and $5 million on canvas 29 x 24 cm almost the size of an A4 sheet. What will we choose? Probably the a4 sheet and we wouldn’t be the only ones. In fact, it is said that a masterpiece by Rembrandt The portrait of Jacob of Gehin III of exactly this size has been stolen 4 times from different museums and institutions for this very reason. Each time the painting was found shortly after the theft. Once attached to the back of a bicycle, once on a bench and today it sits right here in London at the Dulwich Gallery.

In addition to the value – portability relationship of the work, another consideration to make is safety. In fact, art thefts often take place in small and not large museums. Thieves prefer to steal works of lower economic value but which can be taken and sold more easily. And from the point of view of curatorial and safety of our museums this is an observation that should not be overlooked. 

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady – Most Famous Art THEFTS in History

The story of the Rembrandt returned or found in absurd places however is not the only famous one. One of the news items that caused the most scandal last year was that of the Portrait of a Lady by Klimt found on the wall of the Ricci Oddi modern art gallery in Piacenza. It was in all the newspapers and our televisions both for the beauty of the work and of course for its value. We are in fact talking about a 60 million euro work found in a wall. Apparently one of the gardeners of the villa gallery, cleaning one of the walls thoroughly, found a metal compartment inside which the painting was wrapped in plastic.

The fact that it was still in the museum is actually not 100% surprise. Already at the time of his disappearance 23 years earlier, in fact, it was thought that the theft had taken place from inside by someone who knew the structure well. An exceptional find in any case considering that the painting is one of only 3 Klimts that can be seen throughout Italy. 

The theft of the Nativity with the Saints by Caravaggio

And Italy and my city in particular Palermo is the protagonist in the 60s of another theft unfortunately not yet resolved. That of the Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis of Assisi stolen in the night between 17 and 18 October 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo. The value of this work is inestimable and it is thought that from an economic point of view it is around 20 million euros. But the most interesting thing for us today is that it is part of the 10 most wanted works in the world by the FBI. In fact, not everyone knows that there are real international databases that collect information on stolen works.

International databases of stolen works of art

When an event like this happens, the first thing that is done is to report the theft to the country’s authorities, who then communicate what happened to the national agency. Official databases with stolen works are an excellent source of information to prevent stolen works that have not made the front page of newspapers from being inadvertently bought by collectors who do not know their provenance or officially auctioned. The work of the special forces, for example of the carabinieri in Italy but also of many other groups in other countries, is fundamental for the recovery and safeguarding of the works, but above all for their identification as forgeries or originals after many years.

The theft of Banksy’s Rain girl – most famous art THEFTS in history

Some theft stories are therefore never solved, others end well almost immediately, others after decades and finally some die right in the bud. As in the case of Banksy’s Rain Girl in 2014. In New Orleans, a group of residents of the neighborhood where the work is located became suspicious when they saw two men fiddling with the painting, even trying to detach a layer of wall from the wall. The opera’s neighbors then asked for detailed explanations of the move.

Why was this happening? Who authorized it? where was it supposed to be moved? I wanted to work! The two men intent on stealing had prepared their cover: they were moving the work from there for a major exhibition in London. Too bad that stealing a work from a wall isn’t as simple and immediate as a Rembrandt canvas the size of an A4. Upon the arrival of the police called by one of the residents of the area, the two had to surrender and the theft was foiled again before happening. 

The theft at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

And this is not the only theft gone wrong. Another is worth telling. The strangest theft in the history of museums occurred in April 1991 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In 45 minutes two thieves sneaked into the museum had been able to take as many as 20 works by the artist. It is a pity, however, that 35 minutes after the escape, all 20 works were found abandoned in a car park in front of the station closest to the museum.

An absurd story, initially meaningless. One of the most important thefts in history, finished before it even started. Yet an explanation the police managed to find it. The two men who fled by car were waiting for a second car to make the switch and not be suspected. But the cover seems to have never arrived, and therefore in the rush having to choose better to abandon the loot than to be caught red-handed. And no one has ever been arrested. 

As an art lover, obviously I would hope that these thefts don’t even exist, but I can’t deny that having discovered them one by one on the occasion of this post was really, really interesting. And if you liked this story check out the channel YouTube so you don’t miss the next video posts related to art, travel and the market. I also suggest you take a look at my series on works of art that have made history such as the Pointillism of Seurat.

Thanks and see you next time! 

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