Art heists: Famous stolen artwork

Famous art heists with person in red shorts wearing handcuffs

One thing we all know about art is its value, both its monetary value and its importance to the art world. But with this knowledge being so commonly known, comes the risk of people trying to steal such masterpieces!

Over the years, there have been stolen art scandals all over the world – and ones you’ve probably never heard of. That’s why we’re going to talk you through the different art heists that made history, and all of the juicy details behind each one.

Were stolen masterpieces ever recovered? You’ll find out in this article, just read on to expand your knowledge and become a whiz on artnapping (stealing artwork from private/public locations) and the most famous heists…

The world’s biggest art heist revealed

Entrance of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where world's biggest art heist happened

Unsurprisingly, people across the globe have tried (and succeeded) to steal some of the most famous artwork, but you’re probably wondering which one is renowned in the art world.

Wondering what the world’s biggest art heist in history is? That would be the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in Boston, America - but why was it so monumental? Well, stolen artwork has been valued by art dealers and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as being worth hundreds of millions of dollars! And the museum is still offering a $10 million reward for any information people have about this heist - which is the largest reward ever offered by a private institution.

The whole thing remains a mystery, even now!

What artwork was stolen at the world’s biggest heist? 

Many illustrations were taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the 18th of March, 1990. In fact, a total of 13 artwork pieces were stolen – all of which have never been found.

The stolen works of art from this heist include:

  • An Ancient Chinese gu (1200–1100 B.C.)
  • 'Landscape With Obelisk' (1638), Govaert Flinck
  • ‘The Concert’ (1663-1666), Johannes Vermeer
  • 'Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee' (1633), Rembrandt van Rijn
  • 'A Lady And Gentleman In Black' (1633), Rembrandt van Rijn
  • 'Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man' (1633), Rembrandt van Rijn
  • 'Chez Tortoni', (Around 1875), Édouard Manet
  • A bronze eagle finial (1813–1814), French
  • ‘5 Works On Paper’ (1857-1888), Edgar Degas.

How did it happen?

Two men posed as police officers to gain access to this popular art museum. They tied up the guards to get free reign of the museum, looting it for the next hour and taking 13 masterpieces away with them.

People have never really understood the ethos behind the stolen art, since many other famous, more expensive pieces in the museum were left completely untouched! And despite being one of the biggest art heists in history, no arrests were ever made – the case remains unsolved. Maybe one day we’ll see their return…

The Mona Lisa is taken 

The Mona Lisa painting in The Louvre with crowds of people admiring it

Back in 1911, on the 21st of August, Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous art piece – the Mona Lisa - was stolen from the Salon Carré in the Louvre Museum. This art heist’s fame also contributed to the painting’s growing popularity.

So, what happened to the Mona Lisa? Well, the theft was noticed the following day by a painter who popped over to the Louvre Museum to gaze at da Vinci’s masterpiece, but was met with four metal pegs where the Mona Lisa once sat instead! The man instantly told security, who then alerted all media outlets to try and get to the bottom of this stolen artwork situation. However, each lead that came through led to a dead end.

These are the key facts about what happened:

  • The Mona Lisa was missing for two years from this date – with no valid information on where it could be.
  • In November 1913, the Mona Lisa was found – in the possession of the criminal, Vincenzo Perugia who had hidden the painting underneath his floorboards in Paris.
  • Vincenzo Perugia had posed as a museum employee, wearing a white smock to gain access, and hid away until the museum closed for the night. He then took the Mona Lisa from its frame and come morning, hid the painting under his smock and stole it.
  • Around two years later, the Mona Lisa was found – only because Perugia tried to sell the painting to a Florence art dealer, who reported him to the director of the Uffizi Galleries.
  • Perugia was then sentenced to six months in prison, and the painting was sent back to the Louvre Museum to be re-displayed.

 “The Loo-vre” Van Gogh toilet scandal

You might have seen this one in the news, but if you haven’t we’re here to explain. Back in 2003, on the 23rd of April, three famous paintings created by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin went missing from Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery.

The three famous paintings were (thankfully) recovered, which is great because collectively, the stolen artwork was estimated at a whopping $8 million! News outlets were then happy to plaster the term “the Loo-vre” everywhere because the paintings were found in a public toilet. The stolen artwork pieces were discovered rolled up in a cardboard tube with a note attached, saying: “We did not intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security.”

It seems the intentions of the thieves responsible were to highlight the lack of protection around such famous paintings. Still to this day, the robbers were never found, so despite getting the (slightly soggy and damaged) artwork back, the mystery remains surrounding who actually took them in the first place!

The stolen Scream

Picture of The Scream’ (version number 4) painting by Edvard Munch

Image source: WikimediaCommons

One of the biggest art heists in history has to be the stolen Scream art piece. Norway’s most famous painting – ‘The Scream’ (version number 4, 1910) by Edvard Munch was stolen on the 22nd of August 2004 from the Munch Museum in Oslo. And Munch’s other illustration, ‘Madonna’ (1892-1895) was also taken.

The two art thieves responsible stormed the building at 11:20 AM, wearing balaclavas to disguise their appearance. The robbers held unarmed security guards at gunpoint to carry out their heist, but luckily this iconic painting resurfaced just over two years later – on the 31st of August 2006. Although, both paintings had obvious damage from being stolen.

Here's what happened:

  • The robbers used a wire cutter to free the paintings from the wall, clumsily dropping the artwork as they escaped – according to eyewitnesses.
  • An eyewitness helpfully photographed the thieves fleeing the scene in their car with both paintings, helping to prosecute them.
  • Oslo’s city government offered a reward of 2 million kroner for people with information on the theft.
  • M&M (the chocolate brand) joined the city government, posting a reward of 2 million for The Scream’s return!
  • In May 2006, three out of six men on trial for the theft were convicted and sentenced to 4-8 years in prison; two of which were also ordered to pay 750 million kroner in compensation.

This piece of famous stolen artwork was and still is priceless; it’s been deemed impossible to value because it is such an original, notable and iconic piece of art. So, its return was a relief for everyone. This painting was also stolen in 1994, so it wasn’t the first time art heists like this had been planned in order to steal ‘The Scream’.

What’s the most recent piece of stolen art?

Vincent van Gogh’s painting, ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ (1884) was taken in March 2020, which is the most recent piece of stolen works of art. Before its mysterious disappearance, it was displayed in the Netherlands and held at the Singer Laren Museum.

What happened and has the art been found? 

There was a heist at the Singer Laren Museum, with Gogh’s piece of art being on loan from the Groninger Museum. Thieves broke into the museum when the pandemic was just beginning, and clearly took advantage of this quiet time (when there were fewer people around to be potential eye-witnesses).

Gogh’s artwork was then taken by a robber, who used a sledgehammer to break through several layers of security, letting them access this famous painting. Currently (in 2022), there is still no sign of this artwork, so the mystery still remains unsolved… for now anyway!

Get inspired

Wooden cabinet with landscape artwork displayed above on a blue wall

Isn’t it crazy to learn how many stolen art pieces have never been recovered? Well, at least now you know about the biggest art heists in history, and you’ll certainly be winning the next pub quiz! Simply share this new info with your friends, family, or whoever will listen.

Remember to check out our blog as well, where you can read other informative articles, and get inspired by all things art.