Five art heists that stunned the world

by Shilpa Raina

We all are familiar with the diamond robbery scene from one of the Mission Impossible series where protagonist Tom Cruise hangs in the air, suspended from a cable over the floor of an extremely well protected computer vault, with arms and legs outwards and after a lot of mid-air tension he successfully manages to steal the diamond. A lot of meticulous planning goes behind “robbing” a bank or anything of great value. Our films – both Hollywood and Bollywood — have given us a fair glimpse into what goes behind organising a successful robbery. While we might believe that incidents like these are far-fetched in real life, a dive into the art history has plenty of examples for us to amaze and wonder how invaluable art has been tactfully stolen from art museums around the globe.
1. When Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre
Status: Recovered
The theft of this fabulous object on August 21, 1911 created a media sensation. . The police were as baffled as everyone else. It was thought that modernist enemies of traditional art must be involved and the avant-garde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested in September and questioned for a week before being released. Pablo Picasso was the next prominent suspect, but there was no evidence against him either. Two years went by before the true culprit was discovered, an Italian petty criminal called Vincenzo Perugia who had moved to Paris in 1908 and worked at the Louvre for a time. He went to the gallery in the white smock that all the employees there wore and hid until it closed for the night when he removed the Mona Lisa from its frame. When the gallery reopened he walked unobtrusively out with the painting under his smock, attracting no attention, and took it to his lodgings in Paris. Then, in December 1913, he contacted a prominent art dealer in Florence, claiming to be in possession of the celebrated portrait. Police swooped in and arrested Vincenzo. He apparently believed, entirely mistakenly, that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon and that he deserved a reward for doing his patriotic duty. Hailed as a patriot in his native Italy, the burglar served six months in jail for the crime.
2. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, The United States
Status: Not recovered
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and roamed the Museum’s galleries, stealing thirteen works of art. They gained entry into the Museum by posing as Boston police officers and stating that they were responding to a call. The guard on duty broke protocol and allowed them entry through the Museum’s security door. They then drew him away from the alarm button and asked him to call his partner. The thieves then handcuffed both of them and threw them in the basement, where they duct-taped their hands and feet to pipes. The bandits then stole around $500 million worth of priceless art, the largest art heist in history. Priceless works like Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Manet’s Chez Tortoni were taken, never to be found again. Earlier, the reward for information leading to the return of 13 works was $5milliom, which was recently doubled to $ 10 million.
3. National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm
Status: Recovered
In December 2000, a gang of thieves used sensational tactics to rob the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. As one gunman threatened security staff, two others filched two paintings by Renoir and one by Rembrandt. They staged two car explosions nearby to distract police. The burglars then jumped into a getaway speedboat outside the waterfront museum with their spoils. By 2005 all three of the missing pieces had been recovered.
4. The Kunstahl Museum, The Netherlands
Status: Destroyed
Early in the morning of 16th October 2012, seven valuable artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin and Monet were stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in less than three minutes. The theft was world news. The thieves got away with the artworks, worth more than $24 million, even though they tripped the small museum's alarm system — probably because the small museum had no guards. But what first seemed like a sophisticated burglary by professionals, turned out to be the work of a few small-time Romanian criminals who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They knew about house burglaries, not art, and they certainly didn’t know about selling art.
5. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico
Status: Not recovered
The single largest theft of precious objects is still the December 1985 robbery of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Robbers stole 140 precious objects, including several gold, turquoise, and jade objects, as well as an obsidian monkey-shaped- vase worth over $20 million. The bandits picked a sleepy time when they knew the guards would be distracted by holiday cheer, and the worst was that the alarm hadn’t been working since the system broke down three years before. It was the new team of guards who arrived at 8 a.m. and discovered that sheets of glass had been removed from seven showcases. Most of the stolen objects were very small and easy to transport, making them especially difficult to track down.
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