Art is deeply subjective. Somehow, strokes on a canvas can look like a child’s doodle to one person and the most beautiful scene to another. Its ability to command a high price at auction also means some people are willing to go to great lengths to get their hands on it. Throughout history, art thieves have made entire careers out of doing just that.
For as long as museums have displayed valuable works of art, thieves have walked in the shadows, circumventing security systems to sneak away with the valuable artifacts showcased within them. For thieves, the risk of the heist justifies the payoffs these priceless works of art guarantee them… and sometimes that means crazy amounts of cash. If you think a few million is a lot, wait until you see the most valuable piece of artwork ever stolen.
1. Vincent Van Gogh’s Fortifications ($3 million): Thieves penetrated security at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery only to stuff all the stolen art into cardboard tubes and leave them in a bathroom with a handwritten note warning the school of their poor security. Talk about adding insult to injury!
2. Edenhurst Gallery murals ($4 million): In 2002, thieves cut alarms at the Edenhurst Gallery and descended from the roof to swipe panels A (below) and B of a mural commissioned for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The valuable panels are still missing.
3. Paul Cezzane’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise ($4.5 million): A thief took advantage of the lax New Year’s Eve security at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford—and the loud bangs of nearby fireworks—to steal this painting in about 10 minutes. It’s yet to be recovered.
4. Chillida’s “Topos IV” and more (about $6.6 million): Thieves stole a truck set to transport about 30 valuable works of art—including a Picasso drawing—from a warehouse in Getafe, Spain. Authorities only recovered a few of the other missing pieces stolen by these crafty criminals.
5. Gibson Stradivarius ($15 million): Handcrafted by the legendary Stradivarius, the violin was stolen twice—in 1919 and again in 1936, by a musician named Julian Altman, who confessed to the deed on his deathbed. As of 2018, respected violinist Joshua Bell was the instrument’s current owner.
Chris Lee / Deseret News
6. Caravaggio’s Nativity ($20 million): Authorities suspect the Sicilian mafia swiped it from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in 1969, but no one knows for certain. A replica now hangs in the frame that once held the original work by the Italian Baroque artist.
7. Treasured pre-Columbian artifacts ($20 million): Two college dropouts climbed through Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology‘s air vents on Christmas Eve to nab 124 artifacts like those below. Three years later, authorities caught them and recovered most of the loot.
Illicit Cultural Property
8. Picasso and Matisse paintings ($24 million): Empty spaces peppered the walls of the Netherlands’s Kunsthal Museum after thieves stole prized works in under three minutes. Once authorities apprehended the thieves, one of their mothers burned many of the paintings in an effort to hide evidence. Thanks, Mom.
9. Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt ($30 million): In 2000, thieves deployed no subtly when they held Sweden’s Stockholm Museum guards at gunpoint, snatched millions in artwork, and escaped in a boat. Eventually, authorities recovered the stolen art and arrested the leader.
10. Fabergé eggs ($33 million): In 1885, the Russian jewelry firm House of Fabergé created 50 golden, bejeweled eggs for Russian royalty—eight of which went missing during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Nearly a decade later, one turned up in an American scrap yard and sold at auction for $33 million.
11. Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers ($55 million): Stolen in 1977 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo (left), Van Gogh’s painting was recovered in Kuwait and then stolen again in 2010. As of 2018, it’s still missing.
12. Madonna of the Yarnwinder ($65 million): Detectives Jack Doyle, left, and Robbie Graham, right, recovered the da Vinci painting in 2007, four years after two thieves carried it out of Drumlanrig Castle. The creative criminals did it in broad daylight by pretending to be police “practicing” extracting the painting.
13. Cellini Salt Cellar ($65 million): Thief Robert Mang swiped the masterpiece carved for King Francis I of France from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2003. He hid it in a lead box buried in an Austrian forest but confessed when friends recognized him in security footage released by authorities.
14. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris heist ($100 million): A single thief swiped five paintings—including Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux Petits-Pois, right—from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010. He hid the rolled-up paintings in garbage bins, which damaged them beyond repair.
15. Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man (about $100 million): German officials stole the painting from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, during World War II. Seventy-five years later, it’s still missing.
16. Munch’s The Scream ($120 million): In 1994, thieves easily stole the painting from the National Gallery in Oslo by smashing a window and climbing a ladder. They left a note that read “thanks for the poor security.” Authorities later caught them in a sting, but they got off on a technicality.
17. The Amber Room (about $303 million): During the 18th century, King Frederick of Prussia constructed a room of jewels and gold in Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. Invading Germans destroyed the palace in 1941 and looted the room.
18. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist ($500 million): Empty frames adorned the walls of the Massachusetts museum after two men disguised as Boston police officers thwarted museum security and pulled off the biggest heist in history. They were never caught.
19. The Mona Lisa (about $620 million): A handyman swiped the famous portrait—estimated to be worth over half a billion today—from the Louvre in 1911. Authorities spent two years searching for the stolen piece, and in their search, bolstered the painting’s notoriety and fame before finding it in 1913.
20. A Panel from Just Judges by Van Eyck (Unknown): The thief who filched one of the panels from the mural in Belgium’s Saint Bavo Cathedral demanded a ransom from authorities to return the piece. They denied payment, and the panel’s still missing. Who knows what the thief could’ve gotten for it?
Because of the dangers of buying and selling stolen art, pieces on the black market can only fetch fractions of their true values. But even that insane value makes museum heists worth it to some people!
Share these museum heists with your friends below!