Art theft is the theft of art. This is usually done for the purpose of resale or ransom; occasionally thieves are also commissioned by dedicated private collectors. Stolen art is also often used between criminals in an underworld banking system as collateral for drug and weapons deals, or to barter for those items.
Many thieves are motivated by the fact that reasonably valuable art pieces are worth millions of dollars and weigh only a few kilograms, at most. Transportation is also trivial, assuming the thief is willing to inflict some damage to the painting by cutting it off the frame and rolling it up into a tube carrier. While most high-profile museums have extremely tight security, many places hosting multimillion dollar works have disproportionately poor security measures. That makes them susceptible to thefts that are slightly more complicated than a typical smash-and-grab, but with huge payoff. However, because the ownership of high profile art is easily tracked, potential buyers are very hard to find. Typically, a thief will steal a work, only to find out that there are no buyers. For the same reason, the stolen piece cannot be put on display publicly, which essentially defeats the purpose of having it. Unfortunately, while no thief can hope to get the actual value of the stolen work, even as little as 5% of the real value can be worthwhile for the thief. Most art is resold at auction houses
; major reputable houses such as Sotheby's
demand proof of art ownership before listing. Many lost art pieces that become found and sold at auction have later been exposed as forgery
A likely scenario in famous art theft is "theft for hire" or similar situations in which buyers have already been found. Some buyers may enjoy possessing famous art secretly. Fossil theft is an easier form of purchase as identification techniques are not as well established as art theft.
State theft, wartime looting and misappropriation by museums
Because antiquities are often regarded by the country of origin as national treasures, there are numerous cases where artworks (often displayed in the acquiring country for decades) have become the subject of highly charged and political controversy. One prominent example is the case of the Elgin Marbles
, which were removed from Greece to the British Museum
in 1816 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin
. Many different Greek
governments have maintained that removal was tantamount to theft.
Similar controversies have arisen over Etruscan, Aztec and Italian artworks, with advocates of the originating countries generally alleging that the removal of artifacts is a pernicious form of cultural imperialism. Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History is engaged (as of November 2006) in talks with the government of Peru about possible repatriation of artifacts taken during the excavation of Machu Picchu by Yale's Hiram Bingham.
In 2006, New York's Metropolitan Museum reached an agreement with Italy to return many disputed pieces. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is also involved in a series of cases of this nature. The artwork in question is of Greek and ancient Italian origin. The museum agreed on 20 November 2006 to return 26 contested pieces to Italy. One of the Getty's signature pieces, a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, is the subject of particular scrutiny.
From 1933 through the end of World War II, the Nazi regime maintained a policy of looting art for sale or for removal to museums in the Third Reich. Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, personally took charge of hundreds of valuable pieces, generally stolen from Jews and other victims of genocide. Members of the families of the original owners of these artworks have, in many cases, persisted in claiming title to their pre-war property. In 2006, after a protracted court battle in the United States and Austria (see Republic of Austria v. Altmann), five paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt were returned by Austria to Maria Altmann, the niece of prewar owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Two of the paintings were portraits of Altmann's aunt, Adele. The more famous of the two, the gold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was sold in 2006 by Altmann and her co-heirs to philanthropist Ronald Lauder for $135 million. At the time of the sale, it was the highest known price ever paid for a painting. The remaining four restituted paintings were later sold at Christies auction house in New York for over $190 million.
Famous cases of art theft
Last Judgment triptych by Memling (1473)
A highlight of Early Netherlandish painting
was stolen several centuries prior to the later theft of two panels from the Ghent Altarpiece
in 1934: Hans Memling
's Last Judgment
altarpiece was commissioned in 1467, and was to become the central art piece in a de'Medici
chapel in Florence
. The ship transporting the painting in 1473 was looted by a "pious" pirate
, offering the painting to the Gdansk
cathedral. Although authenticity is undoubted, the story is plainly documented, and the now-priceless painting is one of Memling's greatest masterpieces, some catalogues of the painter's work scarcely mention it. Negotiations with the city of Gdansk to restore the theft keep failing. Nonetheless, the triptych
was temporarily shown at a Memling exhibition in Bruges
, marking the 500th anniversary of the painter's death. The case is famous because it allotted the receivers
of the stolen goods not only the profit of owning the art work, but also the profit of copyright-like earnings (e.g. when lending it for expositions or photography), without needing to make any expense for hiding its whereabouts, over an extended period.
Gainsborough's The Duchess of Devonshire (1878)
In 1878, burglar Adam Worth
stole Gainsborough's The Duchess of Devonshire
from London art dealers Agnew & Agnew, which he used to negotiate the release of an accomplice from prison. However, as Worth's friend had already been freed, he demanded a ransom instead, which would finally be negotiated for an undisclosed amount in 1901.
The Mona Lisa (1911)
Perhaps the most famous case of art theft occurred on August 21
, when the Mona Lisa
was stolen from the Louvre
. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire
, who had once called for the Louvre
to be "burnt down," came under suspicion; he was arrested and put in jail. Apollinaire pointed to his friend Pablo Picasso
, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.
At the time, the painting was believed to be lost forever, and it would be two years before the real thief was discovered. It turned out that Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia stole it by simply walking out the door with it hidden under his coat. Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed da Vinci's painting should be returned to Italy for display in an Italian museum. Peruggia may have also been motivated by a friend who sold copies of the painting, which would skyrocket in value after the theft of the original. After having kept the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to donate it (or perhaps sell it) to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and only served a few months in jail for the crime.
Panels from the Ghent Altarpiece (1934)
Two panels of the fifteenth century Ghent Altarpiece
, painted by the brothers Jan
and Hubert Van Eyck
were stolen in 1934, of which only one was recovered shortly after the theft. The other one (lower left of the opened altarpiece, known as De Rechtvaardige Rechters
i.e. The Just Judges
), has never been recovered, as the presumable thief (Arsène Goedertier
), who had sent some anonymous letters asking for ransom, died before revealing the whereabouts of the painting.
Nazi theft and looting of Europe during the Second World War (1939-1945)
The Nazi plundering
of artworks was carried out by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories
(Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzen Gebiete). In occupied France, the Jeu de Paume Art Museum
was used as a central storage and sorting depot for looted artworks from museums
and private art collections
throughout France pending distribution to various persons and places in Germany. The Nazis confiscated tens of thousands of works from their legitimate Jewish
owners. Some were confiscated by the Allies
at the end of the war. Many ended up in the hands of respectable collectors and institutions.
Jewish ownership of some of the art was codified into the Geneva conventions.
Quedlinburg medieval artifacts (1945)
In 1945, an American soldier Joe Meador stole eight medieval artifacts found in a mineshaft near Quedlinburg
which had been hidden by local members of the clergy from Nazi looters in 1943.
Returning to the United States, the artifacts remained in Meador's possession until his death in 1980. He made no attempt to sell them. When his older brother and attempted to sell a 9th century manuscript and 16th century prayerbook in 1990, the two were charged. However, the charges were dismissed after it was declared the statute of limitations had expired.
Alfred Stieglitz Gallery (1946)
Three paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe
were stolen while on display at the art gallery of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. The paintings were eventually found by O'Keeffe following their purchase by the Princeton Gallery of Fine Arts
for $35,000 in 1975.
O'Keeffe sued the Museum for their return and, despite a six-year statute of limitations on art theft, a state appellate court ruled in her favor on July 27, 1979.
University of Michigan (1967)
Sketches by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso
and British sculptor Henry Moore
, valued at $200,000, were stolen while on display in a travelling art exhibit organized by the University of Michigan
. The sketches were eventually found by federal agents in a California auction house on January 24
, although no arrests were made.
Izmur Archaeology Museum (1969)
Various artifacts and other art worth $5 million were stolen from the Izmur Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, Turkey
on July 24
(during which a night watchmen was killed by the unidentified thieves). Turkish police soon arrested a German citizen who, at the time of his arrest on August 1
, had 128 stolen items in his car.
Stephen Hahn Art Gallery (1969)
Art thieves stole seven paintings, including works by Cassett, Monet, Pissarro and Rouault, from art dealer Stephen Hahn
's Madison Avenue art gallery at an estimated value of $500,000 on the night of November 17
. Ironically, Stephen Hahn had been discussing art theft with other art dealers as the theft was taking place.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1972)
On September 4, 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
was the site of the largest art theft in Canadian history, when armed thieves made off with jewellery, figurines and 18 paintings worth a total of $2 million at the time, including works by Delacroix, Gainsborough and a rare Rembrandt landscape. The works have never been recovered. In 2003, the Globe and Mail
estimated that the Rembrandt alone would be worth $20 million.
Looting of Cypriot Orthodox Churches following the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus
Following the invasion of Cyprus
in 1974 by Turkey
, and the occupation of the northern part of the island churches belonging to the Cypriot Orthodox Church
have been looted in what is described as "…one of the most systematic examples of the looting of art since World War II"
. Several high profile cases have made headline news on the international scene. Most notable was the case of the Kanakaria mosaics, 6th century AD frescos that were removed from the original church, trafficked to the USA and offered for sale to a museum for the sum of US$20,000,000. These were subsequently recovered by the Orthodox Church following a court case in Indianapolis.
The Gardner Museum (1990)
The largest art theft in world history occurred in Boston on March 18, 1990 when thieves stole 13 pieces, collectively worth $500 million, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. A reward of $5,000,000 is still offered for information leading to their return.
The pieces stolen were: Vermeer's "The Concert," which is the most valuable stolen painting in the world; two Rembrandt paintings, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (his only known seascape) and "Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman in Black;" A Rembrandt self-portrait etching; Manet's "Chez Tortoni;" five drawings by Edgar Degas; Govaert Flinck's "Landscape with an Obelisk;" an ancient Chinese Qu; and a finial that once stood atop a flag from Napoleon's Army.
Mather Brown's Thomas Jefferson (1994)
While being stored in preparation to be reproduced, the portrait of Thomas Jefferson
painted by artist Mather Brown
in 1786, was stolen from a Boston warehouse on July 28
. Authorities apprehended the thieves and recovered the painting on May 24
following a protracted FBI investigation.
Cooperman Art Theft hoax (1999)
In July 1999, Los Angeles ophthalmologist Steven Cooperman
was convicted of insurance fraud for arranging the theft of two paintings, a Picasso and a Monet, from his home in an attempt to collect $17.5 million in insurance.
The National Museum of Fine Art (Nationalmuseum), Stockholm, Sweden (2000–2005)
One Rembrandt and two Renoirs were stolen from The National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden, when three armed thieves broke into the museum and were able to flee in a boat moored in front of the museum. By 2001 the police had recovered one Renoir, by March 2005 they had recovered the second Renoir in Los Angeles and in September they recovered the Rembrandt in sting operation in a Copenhagen hotel.
Stephane Breitwieser - The "Art Collector" (c. 2001)
Stephane Breitwieser admitted to stealing 238 artworks and other exhibits from museums travelling around Europe; his motive was to build a vast personal collection. In January 2005, Breitwieser was given a 26-month prison sentence. Unfortunately, over 60 paintings, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Corneille de Lyon were chopped up by Breitwieser's mother, Mireille Stengel, in what police believe was an effort to remove incriminating evidence against her son.
Russborough House (1974, 1986, 2001, 2002)
, the Irish
estate of the late Sir Alfred Beit
, has been robbed four times since 1974.
In 1974, members of the IRA, including Rose Dugdale, bound and gagged the Beits, making off with nineteen paintings worth an estimated £8 million. A deal to exchange the paintings for prisoners was offered, but the paintings were recovered after a raid on a rented cottage in Cork, and those responsible were caught and imprisoned.
In 1986, a Dublin gang lead by Martin Cahill stole eighteen paintings worth an estimated £30 million in total. Sixteen paintings were subsequently recovered, with a further two still missing to this day (2006).
Two paintings worth an estimated £3 million were stolen by three armed men in 2001. One of these, a Gainsborough had been previously stolen by Cahill's gang. Both paintings were recovered in September 2002.
A mere two to three days after the recovery of the two paintings stolen in 2001, the house was robbed for the fourth time, with five paintings taken. These paintings were recovered in December 2002 during a search of a house in Clondalkin.
Frankfurt art theft and "Operation Cobalt" (1994-2003)
Three paintings were stolen from a German gallery in 1994, two of them belonging to the Tate Gallery
. In 1998, Tate conceived of Operation Cobalt
, the secret buyback of the paintings from the thieves. The paintings were recovered in 2000 and 2002, resulting in a profit of several million pounds for Tate, because of prior insurance payments.
Edvard Munch works (1994, 2004, and 2005)
In 1994, Edvard Munch's The Scream
was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo
, and held for ransom. It was recovered later in the year.
On 22 August 2004, another original of The Scream was stolen—Munch painted several versions of The Scream—together with Munch's Madonna. This time the thieves targeted the version held by the Munch Museum, from where the two paintings were stolen at gunpoint and during opening hours. Both paintings were recovered on 31 August 2006. Three men have already been convicted, but the gunmen remain at large. If caught, they could face up to eight years in prison.
On 6 March 2005, three more Munch paintings were stolen from a hotel in Norway, including Blue Dress, and were recovered the next day. On 31 August 2006, 'The Scream' and 'The Madonna' were recovered relatively undamaged.
On May 11, 2003, Benvenuto Cellini's Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which was covered by a scaffolding at that time due to reconstruction works. On January 21, 2006 the Saliera was recovered by the Austrian police.
Jacob de Gheyn III
's Jacob de Gheyn III
has been taken four times, making it the world's most stolen painting.
São Paulo Museum of Art (2007)
On December 20, 2007, around five o'clock in the morning, three men invaded the São Paulo Museum of Art and took two paintings, considered to be among the most valuable of the museum: the Portrait of Suzanne Bloch by Pablo Picasso and Cândido Portinari's O lavrador de café. The whole action took about 3 minutes. The paintings, which are listed as Brazilian National Heritage by IPHAN, were recovered by the Brazilian Police on January 8th, 2008. Their estimated value is up to US$ 55 million.
Emile Bührle Foundation in Zurich (2008)
On February 11, 2008, four major impressionist paintings were stolen from the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zürich, Switzerland. They were Monet’s "Poppy Field at Vetheuil," "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter" by Edgar Degas, Van Gogh’s "Blooming Chestnut Branches," and Cézanne’s "Boy in the Red Vest." The total worth of the four is estimated at $163 million.
Two of the four paintings, Van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches and Monet's Poppies near Vétheuil, were later recovered in a nearby parked car.
Pinacoteca do Estado Museum
On June 12
, three armed men broke into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum, Sao Paulo
with a crowbar
and a carjack
around 5:09 AM and stole "The Painter and the Model" (1963), and "Minotaur, Drinker and Women" (1933) by Pablo Picasso
, "Women at the Window" (1926) by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti
and "Couple" (1919) by Lasar Segall
. It was the second theft of art in São Paulo in six months.
The Art Loss Register
(ALR) was formed in 1991 in London
by a partnership of leading international auction houses and art trade associations, the insurance industry, and the International Foundation for Art Research. Its shareholders include Christie's
, Phillips de Pury & Company
, and others. It is the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques dedicated to their recovery.
2007 saw the foundation of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). Its Director is Noah Charney, a novelist and a leading expert on the study of art theft; other founding members included the head of Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiquities Squad and several criminologists. ARCA is a nonprofit think tank dedicated principally to raising the profile of art crime (art forgery and vandalism, as well as theft) as an academic subject. It also plans to provide free consulting on the prevention of art theft, among a number of other projects dedicated to the prevention of art theft.
In the public sphere, Interpol, the FBI, London's Metropolitan Police, and a number of other law enforcement agencies worldwide maintain "art squads" dedicated to investigating thefts of this nature and recovering stolen works of art.
Fictional art theft
Genres such as crime fiction
often portray fictional art thefts as glamorous or exciting. In literature, a niche of the mystery
genre is devoted to art theft and forgery. In film, a caper story
usually features complicated heist plots and visually exciting getaway scenes. In many of these movies, the stolen art piece is a MacGuffin
- Author Iain Pears has a series of novels known as the Art History Mysteries, each of which follows a fictional shady dealing in the art history world.
- St. Agatha's Breast by T. C. Van Adler follows an order of monks attempting to track the theft of an early Poussin work.
- The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa by Robert Noah is a historical fiction speculating on the motivations behind the actual theft.
- Inca Gold by Clive Cussler is a Dirk Pitt adventure about pre-Columbian art theft.
- Author James Twining has written a trio of novels featuring a character called Tom Kirk, who is/was an art thief. The third book, The Gilded Seal is centred around a fictional theft of Da Vinci works, specifically, the Mona Lisa.
- Author Eoin Colfer's book, Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception features the theft of a painting from a highly guarded Swiss bank.
Images of some artworks that have been stolen and were not recovered yet.
- Dolnick, Edward (2005). The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. HarperCollins. A detailed account of the recovery of Munch's The Scream after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994.
- McShane, Thomas, with Dary Matera (2007). Loot: Inside the World of Stolen Art. Maverick House.
- Reit, Seymour (1981). The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa. Summit Books.