Art theft  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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.


Individual theft

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. Transport for items such as paintings 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 with multimillion art collections 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.

For those with substantial inherited collections like the Marquess of Cholmondeley at Houghton Hall, the risk of theft is neither negligible nor negotiable. Jean-Baptiste Oudry's White Duck was stolen from the Cholmondeley collection in 1990. The canvas is still missing.

The ownership of high profile art is easily tracked; and 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 displayed publicly, which essentially defeats the purpose of having it.

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 or Christie'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 or imitation.

A famous art theft may be a "theft for hire" or similar situation in which a buyer has already been found who enjoys possessing famous art secretly.


Preventive measures in museums

Some measures museums can take to prevent the theft of artwork include having enough docents or guards to watch displayed items, avoiding situations where security-camera sightlines are blocked, and fastening paintings to walls with hanging wires that are not too thin and with locks.

Art theft education

The Smithsonian Institution sponsors the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection, held annually in Washington, D. C. The conference offers insight and proven solutions for new and seasoned professionals in the field of cultural property protection.

Since 1996, the Netherlands-based Museum Security Network has disseminated news and information related to issues of cultural property loss and recovery.

2007 saw the foundation of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). Its Director is Terressa Davis, a lawyer and former Project Coordinator of Heritage Watch, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the past of Southeast Asia; other members include 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. In the summer 2009, ARCA - the Association for Research into Crimes against Art - began offering the first postgraduate program in the world dedicated to the study of art crime. The International Art Crime Studies Masters Program is held from June to August every year.


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 (IFAR). Its shareholders include Christie's, Sotheby's, Bonhams, Phillips de Pury & Company, and others. It is the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques dedicated to their recovery.

In the public sphere, Interpol, the FBI Art Crime Team lead by special agent Robert King Wittman, London's Metropolitan Police, New York Police Department's special frauds squad and a number of other law enforcement agencies worldwide maintain "squads" dedicated to investigating thefts of this nature and recovering stolen works of art.

According to Robert K. Wittman, a former FBI agent who led the Art Crime Team until his retirement in 2008, the unit is very small compared with similar law-enforcement units in Europe, and most art thefts investigated by the FBI involve agents at local offices who handle routine property theft. "Art and antiquity crime is tolerated, in part, because it is considered a victimless crime," Wittman said in 2010.

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 Göring, 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 Gdańsk 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 Gdańsk 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, 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who was caught after two years.

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 in Paris 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 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, 1969, although no arrests were made.

Izmir Archaeology Museum (1969)

Various artifacts and other art worth $5 million were stolen from the Izmir Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, Turkey on July 24, 1969 (during which a night watchman 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, 1969. 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 $1 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.

Picasso works in the Palais des Papes (1976)

On January 31, 1976, 118 paintings, drawings and other works by Picasso were stolen from an exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France.

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, 1994. Authorities apprehended the thieves and recovered the painting on May 24, 1996 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 Renoir paintings were stolen from The National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden, when three armed thieves broke into the museum and managed to flee using a boat, moored in front of the museum. By 2001, the police had recovered one of the Renoirs and by March 2005 they had recovered the second one in Los Angeles. That year, in September, they recovered the Rembrandt in a sting operation in a hotel in Copenhagen.

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, François 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)

Russborough House, 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 London. 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, Norway, and held for ransom. It was recovered later in the year.

On August 22, 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 August 31, 2006, relatively undamaged. Three men have already been convicted, but the gunmen remain at large. If caught, they could face up to eight years in prison.

On March 6, 2005, three more Munch paintings were stolen from a hotel in Norway, including Blue Dress, and were recovered the next day.


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

Rembrandt's Jacob de Gheyn III has been taken four times, making it the world's most stolen painting.

Museu Chácara do Céu (2006)

On February 24, 2006, the paintings Man of Sickly Complexion Listening to the Sound of the Sea by Salvador Dalí, The Dance by Pablo Picasso, Luxembourg Gardens by Henri Matisse, and Marine by Claude Monet were stolen from the Museu Chácara do Céu in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The thieves took advantage of a carnival parade passing by the museum and disappeared into the crowd. The paintings haven't been recovered yet.

Hermitage thefts (2006)

On August 1, 2006, the Hermitage Museum curator Mikhail Piotrovsky announced that 221 items estimated at US$5 million went missing and presumed stolen in the warehouses of the Hermitage Museum after a routine inventory check. Among them are precious metals and jewellery. The photos as well as their descriptions of the missing items are up on their website. On August 18, 2006, three men are charged for the thefts among them were Nikolai Zavadsky, his son Nikolai Zavadsky, Jr. and Ivan Sobolev, a university professor. Zavadsky supposedly help his wife, the late Larissa Zavadsky then the curator of the said collection for stealing the items for over a decade. She died in 2005. Some the missing items were recovered or returned by anonymous collectors and dealers. Russia's then President Vladimir Putin has called for a nationwide inventory audit of Russia's national museums starting on September 1, 2006.

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 8, 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, 2008, three armed men broke into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum, São 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.

Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2010)

On May 20, 2010, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris reported the overnight theft of five paintings from its collection. The paintings taken were Le pigeon aux petits pois by Pablo Picasso, La Pastorale by Henri Matisse, L'Olivier Près de l'Estaque by George Braque, La Femme a l'Eventail by Amedeo Modigliani and Nature Morte aux Chandeliers by Fernand Léger and were valued at €100 million euros ($123 million).

See also

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.
  • Ian Rankin's novel Doors Open centers on an art heist organised by a bored businessman.
  • "The Art Thief" by Noah Charney, a fiction quoting art thefts in history, some plots are based on the real theft of missing Caravaggio from Palermo. Through a character's mouth the author also gave his conclusion as how to narrow the circle of suspects for the famous robbery of the Boston Gardner Museum.
  • Heist Soceity by Ally Carter is a young-adult fiction novel depicting teens who rob the Henley.


  • Gambit (1966), starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine
  • Once a Thief (1991), directed by John Woo, follows a trio of art-thieves in Hong Kong who stumble across a valuable cursed painting.
  • Hudson Hawk (1991) centers on a cat burglar who is forced to steal Da Vinci works of art for a world domination plot.
  • In the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, the title character is a stylish, debonair playboy who steals art for amusement rather than for the money (the 1968 Thomas Crown film arranges the theft of cash from banks, not art).
  • In Entrapment (1999), an insurance agent is persuaded to join the world of art theft by an aging master thief.
  • Ocean's Twelve (2004) involves the theft of four paintings (including Blue Dancers by Edgar Degas) and the main plot revolves around a competition to steal a Fabergé egg.
  • Adele's Wish (2008) is a documentary film dealing with the theft and restitution of five paintings by Gustav Klimt, including the famous "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Art theft" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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