The Most Audacious Art Thefts in History

We all know that stealing is wrong… and yet there’s something fascinating about the criminals who dare to pull off art thefts and elaborate heists.

The Thomas Crown Affair. Ocean’s 8. Entrapment. White Collar. Lupin. Hollywood has always glamorized the art thief as a more sophisticated kind of criminal, a debonaire figure in a tuxedo or evening gown, hobnobbing with the very people they intend to rob.

But the reality is that most art thefts aren’t that cinematic. More times than you might expect, thieves have simply cut paintings from their frames, tucked them in their jackets, and strolled out of museums. These are the stories of some of the most daring, brazen art thefts of all time.

Stealing “Mona Lisa”

Although Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was well-known before 1911, it wasn’t yet the most famous painting in the world. It wasn’t even considered one of the artist’s best works. Then it was stolen from the Louvre.

PARIS, FRANCE - 06 MAY, 2017: Louvre museum is one of the world's largest museums with more than 8 million visitors each year.

Authorities and amateur detectives alike searched for the painting for over two years. Thanks to heavy newspaper coverage, people all over the world became fascinated by the case. Who had stolen it? Why had the world been robbed of the opportunity to appreciate this priceless work of art?

In 1913, a house painter named Vincenzo Peruggia tried to sell the painting to a dealer in Florence. The Italian had worked at the Louvre and decided to “repatriate” Da Vinci’s masterpiece. That takes care of the who and the why, but what about the how? By his own account, Peruggia grabbed the painting, hid it under his clothing, and left without anyone realizing what had happened.

Mugshots of Vincenzo Perruggia, an employee of the Louvre Museum who stole the Mona Lisa on August 21, 1911. He was caught two years later.

Of course, the “Mona Lisa” is now kept under constant guard, protected in a temperature-controlled glass box, and surrounded by a wooden barricade to keep viewers far from the iconic painting. Unless those viewers are Beyonce and Jay-Z.

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The Heartbreaking Tale of Stéphane Breitwieser

Between 1995 and 2001, Stéphane Breitwieser robbed 172 museums, amassing a collection of 239 pieces of art. Why? Because he wanted to. “I enjoy art. I love such works of art. I collected them and kept them at home,” Breitwieser said at his trial.

He focused on smaller collections and traveling exhibitions, as opposed to major museums, and was able to cut paintings from their frames while his girlfriend kept watch. He even robbed Sotheby’s auction house! Breitwieser stored his incredible collection in his old bedroom at his mother’s house, glorying in the fact that he was secretly the owner of the most incredible private collection of art in all of Europe. He never tried to sell the artwork he’d stolen, and if he hadn’t been caught in 2001, it’s entirely possible that he would have continued quietly stealing whatever he fancied.

Inner yard of Richard Wagner Museum in Switzerland, Lucern with trees and mountains on the background, with fallen leaves in autumn.

But Breitwieser was caught. He was attempting to steal a bugle from the Richard Wagner Museum in Switzerland when a guard spotted him. He ran but returned to the museum two days later. The very same guard recognized him, and Breitwieser was sent to prison for two years.

Tragically for the art world, Breitwieser’s mother would destroy about a third of her son’s collection while he was behind bars. Mireille Breitwieser methodically cut up Old Master paintings and put them down the garbage disposal. As for the trinkets and jewelry he’d stolen, his mother threw them in the nearby canal.

Authorities claim that Mireille had no idea of the value of the items she’d destroyed. Breitwieser, his mother, and his girlfriend all received prison sentences. After being released, he got back up to his old tricks. Breitwieser was arrested as recently as 2019, apparently unable to stop himself from stealing even more treasures from museums around the world.

Theft, Lies, and… Murder?

In 2012, a crew of Romanian thieves led by Radu Dogaru pulled off a $65 million art heist. They targeted Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, which held a collection that included Money, Picasso, Gauguin, and Matisse. The thieves would steal seven masterpieces and take them over the border from the Netherlands to Romania.

The greatest challenge was not the theft itself but how to liquidate the paintings for cash. You can’t just list a stolen Picasso on eBay! Thieves often try to ransom their loot to the insurance companies that hold the policies for the artwork. If that fails, then it’s time to hit the black market.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands, January 6, 2022: Museum Park with Kunsthal, Natural History Museum and Erasmus medical center on a winter morning before sunrise

Authorities believe that the Romanian gang intended to sell the paintings to billionaire playboy Constantin Dinescu, a fellow Romanian nicknamed the “baron of luxury.” But did they go through with the sale? The thieves were eventually caught, and they agreed to participate in a sting operation with the police in order to trap Dinescu. It didn’t work.

The baron of luxury was murdered in 2020 (under very unsavory circumstances), and when police raided his properties, they found secret rooms that had been set up as galleries for black market artwork. But the seven masterpieces from the Kunsthal weren’t there. Radu Dogaru’s mother then claimed that her son had given her the paintings to hide. She told police that she had buried them in two different locations, and then, fearing discovery, had burned the paintings.

It seemed that, like Mireille Breitwieser, the thief’s mother had destroyed the evidence. However, she later admitted that she had faked the fire in order to mislead the police. The artwork had resurfaced briefly on the black market, and Olga Dogaru’s story fell apart.

DUBROVNIK, CROATIA - AUGUST 24, 2016: Black and white poster with Pablo Picasso portrait and green tree at Picasso exhibition hall, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

But this story isn’t done yet. When a writer named Mira Feticu published a novel inspired by the saga of the art heist, she was contacted by a mysterious source who told her where to find the missing Picasso. She followed their directions and found the artwork! Only it was a fake. Two Dutch artists had staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt for their documentary.

The paintings are still officially listed as missing. Dogaru served almost seven years in prison—and tried to sue the Kunsthal for being too easy to rob. Eventually, he admitted that his mother had handed off the artwork to a mysterious Ukrainian man based in London. Will the art ever be found? Is it hanging in some oligarch’s secret gallery right now? A stolen painting is surely better than one that’s been burned to ash or shoved down a garbage disposal. But it’s still a blow to not only the art world but to our collective cultural heritage.

The Gardner Museum Theft

In 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The theft remains unsolved, but “[t]he Museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art.” There is a standing $10 million reward for information that leads to the safe return of the art. Until then, empty frames will continue to hang in the museum’s galleries as a reminder of what was lost.

How did thieves pull off the largest single property theft the world has ever known? The heist took just 81 minutes from start to finish, beginning when two men wearing police uniforms asked to be let inside. They claimed to have gotten a call about a disturbance, and the poor security guard on duty believed them. He and his partner were tied up and left in the basement while the thieves carried out their plan.

Boston MA USA - circa Feb 2020 - Interior of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Thanks to data from the museum’s motion detectors, we know what happened next. They cut two works by Rembrandt from their frames in the Dutch Room, then moved on to steal a Vermeer and a landscape by Flinck. They grabbed an ancient Chinese artifact, then another Rembrandt. Moving swiftly, they stole five drawings by Degas and a Napoleonic bronze eagle. The final item taken was a painting by Manet. The total value of what was stolen amounts to about $500 million. You can see pictures of all 13 artworks here.

Earlier this year, a tip led authorities to take a closer look at the murder of Jimmy Marks, a career criminal who was killed less than a year after the theft. It was labeled as a mob hit, and police were hardly surprised that Marks would run afoul of organized crime. But the tipster claimed that Marks had been bragging about holding onto two of the paintings after hiding the rest.

Police believe that someone moved the paintings from Boston to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold. Mobster Bobby Guarente was the prime suspect in the case, but authorities were never able to conclusively prove that he’d been involved. However, his widow claimed in 2015 that Guarente had killed Marks.

Was Marks one of the two thieves who pulled off the biggest art heist in modern history? And was he betrayed by the gangster who hired him to steal the artwork? We may never find out—but we can hope that one day, the artwork will be recovered.

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