The 9 Biggest Unrecovered Art Heists In History
Recently, someone scored Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, Version O for a cool $179 million at the Christie’s Looking Forward to the Past evening sale. That's pretty cool, but do you know what's better than having $179 million to spend on a Picasso? Having $179 million and a Picasso.
Here are nine of the biggest unsolved art heists in history.
The National Fine Arts Museum in Paraguay
In 2002, Paraguay, known far and wide as a totally safe place to travel and store your art, hosted the most valuable exhibition in the nation’s history at the National Fine Arts Museum. It was a grand spectacle that drew art collectors and fans from around the country…until a group of criminals devised an elaborate plan and robbed the joint of over a million dollars worth of paintings.
The heist apparently took months to plan and involved a 10-foot-deep tunnel to help transport the stolen pieces from the museum to an anonymously rented storefront a mere 80 feet away.
The works—which include The Virgin Mary and Jesus by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a self portrait by Tintoretto , Woman’s Head by Adolphe Piot, Landscape by Gustave Coubert, and at least eight others—haven’t been seen since.
The Henry Moore Foundation
Value: $3 Million
In what may be the most poorly executed heist on this list, authorities believe a traveling band of criminals (what a life, eh?) stole a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide sculpture from The Henry Moore Foundation.
The hefty two-ton bronze sculpture, titled Reclining Figure, was peacefully perched on the quiet 72-acre estate. It was valued at roughly $4.6 million.
Police believe the crooks poached the famous Moore using a crane equipped flatbed and then hacked it into pieces, melted it down, and sold it to a dealer for scraps, which were sent to China and used to construct electronic devices.
While no one was ever arrested in connection with the heist, the crooks only netted about $3,000 for the melted metal, despite The Henry Moore Foundation offering a $20,000 reward for the sculpture’s safe return. We don’t get it either. But hey, that iPhone you’re holding may actually be a work of art!
The Oratory of San Lorenzo
Value: $20 Million
In what is commonly regarded as one of the most mysterious art heists in history, the famous Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (more popularly known as The Adoration) was pilfered in 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy.
The massive 9-foot-by-6.5-foot painting, believed to have been painted in 1609 by the Italian master painter Caravaggio, was stolen by an unknown number of thieves.
It is widely thought that the Sicilian Mafia played a key role in the heist, and over the decades several snitches have come forward with their own accounts for the masterpiece and its whereabouts.
In 2009, mafioso-turned-informer Gaspare Spatuzza said he had been informed that the famous masterpiece was left to rot in an Italian barn in the 1980’s, where it was ruined by rats and pigs, and consequently burned. Were it put up for auction today, the estimated worth of Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence would have been roughly $20 million, making it the most expensive pig feed we’ve ever heard of.
Value: $65 Million
In the early morning hours of October 6, 2012, Radu Dogaru and five accomplices entered the Kunsthal art museum in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and stole seven historic pieces of art worth more than $24 million.
The highly sophisticated heist was executed in mere minutes, and the thieves were in and out of the museum before police arrived on the scene. How they did it has baffled authorities, who say the thieves somehow got around the Kunsthal’s allegedly state-of-the-art security system. Dogaru would later say the robbery was "too easy."
While Dogaru and his accomplices were caught, pleaded guilty, and were convicted (save for one, who is still on the run), none of the pieces have been recovered. Dogaru’s mother, Olga, told police she burnt the priceless works of art to dispose of evidence against her son, but later retracted her statement.The stolen pieces include La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune by Matisse, Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge by Monet, Harlequin Head by Picasso, Femme Devant une Fenetre Ouverte, Dite la Fiancee by Gauguin, and more.
Saint Bavo Cathedral
Value: $3 Million
On April 10, 1934, the two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the world's premiere examples of 15th century realist artwork, were stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Belgium by Belgian Arsene Goedertier. He tried to ransom the paintings for one million Belgian Francs and returned one panel, John the Baptist, as an act of good faith. Unfortunately, the deal fell through and Goedertier died without revealing the whereabouts of The Just Judges.
On his deathbed, Goedertier revealed to his lawyer that he was the thief. He led him to a file containing carbon copies of correspondence with the Bishop of Ghent in which he attempted to negotiate the ransom.
The only clue he gave as to the whereabouts of the panel was a then-unsent note to the Bishop, which read: “[It] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”
However, it is believed the panel—whose value is essentially priceless—was destroyed. Dick move, Goedertier. Dick move.
Van Gogh Museum
Value: $30 Million
In 2002, two thieves snaked two of van Gogh’s early paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Using a ladder, the thieves entered the museum from the roof and took Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen.
Though the crooks were eventually charged and convicted of the crime (thanks to DNA found at the scene), the paintings disappeared without a trace. Despite a $110,000 reward offered by the museum for the return of the art, not a single person has come forward with information regarding the robbery or the paintings’ whereabouts.
Many people believe the two thieves are holding out, trying to squeeze through a special loophole in Dutch law that would make them the owners of the stolen property if the paintings go unrecovered for 30 years.Yes, that’s right. If you steal something in the Netherlands and no one catches you for 30 years, you technically own it.
Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Value: $162 million
In 2010, a lone thief walked away from the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris with five prized masterpieces worth an estimated $162 million. The alleged thief, known only as “Vrejan T,” a 43-year-old Serbian, hoisted himself into the museum through a busted window.
The details of the story are exceptionally murky, but Vrejan, known also as “Spiderman,” told police he was only there on a job to steal Nature Morte aux Chandeliers by Leger, but after gaining access to the museum without so much as an alarm sounding, he decided to swipe four more masterpieces: La Pigeon aux Petits Pois by Picasso, La Pastorale by Matisse, L’Olivier Pres de l’Estaque by Braque, and La Femme a l’Eventail by Modigliani.
Spiderman gave up the name of the man who hired him for the job, Jean-Michel C, a 56-year-old antiques dealer with a history of selling stolen art who neglected to pay Spiderman for his efforts. Jean-Michel C then gave up the name of Jonathan B, a recognized art expert and watchmaker who was given the art. Jonathan B told police that he panicked upon hearing about the arrests of the other two men and subsequently dumped the works of art into a dustbin.
The Gardner Heist
Value: $300 Million
On a cold March night in 1990, two men pulled off the largest unsolved art heist the world has ever seen.
The two crooks, dressed as police officers, duped the night-watch guards into letting them into Boston's Gardner Museum after hours where, in the span an hour and a half, they stole $300 million in priceless Rembrandts, Vermeers, Degas, Flincks, and Manets.
The paintings haven’t been seen since, and the crooks even turned down a no-questions-asked $5 million reward for their safe return. Authorities have spent years theorizing who did it, and have pointed fingers at everyone from Boston mobsters to the Irish Republican Army. Twenty-five years later, we still don’t have a clue.
The Nazi’s Plundering of Art
Value: $20 Billion
It is rumored that the Nazis stole over 200,000 historic and cultural artifacts from museums and private collections throughout their occupation of Europe during the Second World War.
Thanks to wartime organizations like the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division of the Allied forces, thousands upon thousands of pieces of art were recovered during and after the war, most of which would have probably remained lost to the world for all time were it not for the efforts of this band of historians, architects, art experts, professors, and museum curators.
Despite their best efforts, 30,000 items are still listed as missing, according to the Art Loss Register—a worldwide database of lost and stolen art. There’s no way to calculate how much the items are worth in total, but it’s probably safe to say they’d be worth modern-day billions. Among the most important masterpieces never recovered are Madonna with Child by Giovanni Bellini, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon by van Gogh, Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael, An Angel with Titus’ Features by Rembrandt, Five Dancing Women by Degas, and The Boulevard Montmartre, Twilight by Pissarro.
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