Stories of stolen masterpieces and crown jewels have captured the hearts and minds of people for many hundreds of years. There is no better story than that of an amazing, dramatic and surprising heist, made even better by a happy ending. But art historically speaking, not all art crime is created equal — and below you will find some of the most exciting and famous art heists of all time!
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
In March of 1990, 13 pieces of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in what was to become (and continues to be) one of the largest art theft events that has ever occurred. They are still searching for the art thieves to this day. None of the artworks have been recovered, and the museum continues to offer a $10 million reward for any information leading to the recovery of the stolen paintings.
After the museum had closed on that March evening, two people who appeared to be uniformed police officers showed up to the entrance and informed the nighttime security guard that they were there to investigate a disturbance. Once inside, they handcuffed and tied up the two employees in the office, and proceeded to walk through the museum, stealing $500 million worth of artworks from the collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Manet, and Flinck.
There are many curious details about this case. First, of all the the artworks in the museum, the items stolen were not the most expensive works in the collection. It seemed the thieves did not plan exactly what they were going to take, as they attempted to unframe at least one painting and gave up, opting to slice other artworks from their frames instead. This also raises the question that perhaps the thieves didn’t have much knowledge of art history to inform the selection of works that they took.
But most perplexing are the circumstances surrounding the Manet painting, Chez Tortoni, that hung in the Blue Room of the museum. The entire museum was equipped with motion detectors that allowed law enforcement to fully recreate the path the thieves took — with one exception. According to the detectors, it appears that they never entered the Blue Room.
For nearly three decades, law enforcement agencies have investigated this art theft with no leads to bring them any closer to recovering the pieces of art. The empty frames of the paintings still hang in the museum as a plea for information to help recover these lost treasures.
The Mona Lisa, the Louvre
Perhaps the most recognizable work of art in the history of the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa would not be the influential woman she is today had she not been lifted in 1911. This art crime unequivocally changed art history forever, making the obscure and quite small painting an overnight sensation. Had another painting been stolen and splashed across international newspapers, we would certainly not have Andy Warhol’s Pop Art ode to her mysterious smile or Dan Brown's bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code.
On August 21, 1911, Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggi purloined the masterpiece from the Louvre, leading French police on a bungled two-year hunt for the lost art. Peruggi had been hired by the museum to make protective glass cases for some of its famous works, including the Mona Lisa. After hiding in a closet overnight, he simply lifted the painting from its display and hid it under his workman’s smock. The handyman was about to exit the Louvre with the concealed da Vinci but discovered the doors were locked. Desperate for an escape, Peruggi removed the doorknob — but the door still would not budge. A helpful plumber happened to be passing by and opened the locked Louvre doors with his key.
A full 24 hours passed before anyone at the Louvre noticed the Mona Lisa was missing. How could one of the most prestigious museums in the world allow such a brazen heist to go unnoticed? For starters, occasionally empty displays at the Louvre were nothing unusual or suspicious; artworks were regularly removed to be cleaned or photographed. Most museums lacked alarms or a significant security presence during this time. In 1911, the Louvre only employed roughly 200 guards to secure its 400 rooms, with even fewer guards on the premises assigned to overnight detail.
The French press seized the opportunity to lambast the seemingly incompetent government, which ran the Louvre. "Sixty detectives seek stolen Mona Lisa, French public indignant," reported the New York Times. The heist launched the Mona Lisa into becoming a household name for regular Joes — people who had no previous interest in art, much less had stepped foot onto European soil. For the first time ever, massive lines formed outside of the Louvre filled with people eager to ogle the empty space where the da Vinci once hung.
A clumsy police investigation to recover the Mona Lisa dragged on for two years, eyeing a young Pablo Picasso as a suspect at one point. Detectives even interviewed Vincenzo Peruggi — twice — concluding the handyman couldn't possibly be the thief. The head of the Paris police retired in shame.
But in December 1913, Peruggia was caught and the painting was finally recovered by an art dealer in Florence. Earlier in 1913, the director of the Uffizi gallery in Florence received a cryptic letter signed “Leonardo” claiming to be in possession of the Mona Lisa. After arranging a meeting with the art dealer and gallery director, Peruggia presented the stolen artwork, claiming to have swiped it in order to return the Mona Lisa to her native Italy. The infamous work had been hidden in a trunk in Peruggia’s apartment for years. Peruggia was arrested and sentenced to seven months in jail, and the Mona Lisa was returned to her rightful place in the Louvre. According to historians, the hapless thief was genuinely convinced he would be celebrated as a national hero in Italy and was dismayed when he wasn’t.
The Ghent Altarpiece
The most frequently stolen artwork in all of history remains the The Ghent Altarpiece, also called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The 15th-century Flemish masterpiece is a veritable who’s who of Catholic mysticism and has been the target of 13 different heists, having been stolen all or in part six times. Indeed, nearly every bad thing that could happen to a painting has happened to this esoteric work, from almost being burned by rioting Calvinists to being pilfered by Napoléon and hotly pursued by Nazis as the artwork they were most desperate to take.
Completed in 1432, the triptych instantly became the most famous artwork in Europe and an object of pilgrimage for artists and thinkers. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. And while eleven-twelfths of it are miraculously intact after hundreds of years of hijinks, half of a key panel remains missing. The Righteous Judges Panel, the subject of one of the six thefts that is still partly unsolved — and a thorn in the side of Belgian police.
During the night of April 10, 1934, one of the 12 panels comprising the altarpiece was stolen from the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent. The panel, which depicts a group of men on horseback, including a portrait of Jan van Eyck’s patron, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, and a portrait of the painter himself, was sliced in half vertically. The reverse side containing a grisaille painting of Saint John the Baptist was left in the checked-luggage department of the Ghent train station. This clue was meant to be a token of the thief’s good faith.
A series of 12 bizarre letters were sent to the bishopric demanding a ransom of one-million Belgian francs (about £22,300) for the return of the other side of the Righteous Judges Panel. The theft and the letters were almost certainly masterminded by Arsène Goedertie, a stockbroker who was heavily involved in the life of the cathedral, though a motive has never been established. The stockbroker was wealthy and in no need of money; his bank accounts proved to be robust with cash at the time of his death. Some postulate that Goedertie was privy to a failed investment scheme involving the church, making the heist an odd attempt to recuperate funds without exposing the investors.
Goedertie may have been the brains behind this nighttime crime, but he would not have been able to be the muscle: he was out of shape and suffered from terrible eyesight. A witness spotted two people leaving the cathedral that night with a panel-sized package wrapped in a black sheet tucked under an arm. However, that witness may not be the most reliable source — he was a burglar himself, who was stealing cheese from a shop across the street at the time.
Several years after the theft, Goedertie suffered a heart attack and collapsed at a Catholic political rally. He summoned his lawyer to his death bed, and upon dying whispered, “I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is. The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked 'mutualité.'” Here, Goedertie's attorney found carbon copies of all 12 ransom letters, plus a 13th letter that had never been sent containing a final, tantalizing clue about the Righteous Judges' whereabouts: “[The panel] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”
The missing panel has never been found. The enduring mystery of the stolen Righteous Judges Panel remains, inspiring dozens of conspiracy theories and armchair historians. Numerous tips flow into the Belgian bishopric to this day, many of which are forwarded to the Ghent police department where an officer remains assigned to this cold case.
More than likely, the panel was hidden somewhere within the cathedral. This would have made its return easy; the thief would simply point out its hiding place after collecting ransom. But shortly after its theft, the painting may have been moved. The hidden panel was moved again when Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels sent a Nazi art detective to search for the stolen panel, as Goebbels planned to give it to Hitler as a birthday gift. The Nazis were unable to find the Righteous Judges, and it is thought that it was spirited out of the city to keep it safe.
Visitors at the Cathedral of Saint Bavo can view what the painting would look like if it were intact today, thanks to a remarkable copy of the Righteous Judges Panel made in 1945 by Jef van der Veken, a brilliant restorer and one-time art forger. A few conspiracy theories suggest the restoration may in fact be the stolen original, painted over and sheepishly returned after the failed ransom negotiations.
In 2012, a BBC special produced by art historian and novelist Noah Charney on the still-missing work explored a church in the village of Wetteren where Goedertie played the organ every Sunday. Historians found an outline with the exact shape and dimensions of the stolen panel in the dust behind the organ rood. The panel almost certainly hung there in plain sight long enough for dust to settle around it.
A pair of young-adult novelists posited the newest altarpiece conspiracy theory in 2018, suggesting the panel may be buried under Kalandeberg Square, a popular shopping center in Ghent. This might have been a publicity stunt, as the square was revealed to be a prominent plot component in the writers’ book. Still, Ghent officials validated the claim as having some merit, pleading with the public to refrain from engaging in amateur excavations of the square.
Click here to learn about the early Renaissance panels in M.S. Rau’s fine art collection.
Last Seen (2018). First Season. Available at: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/648710646/last-seen
“Mona Lisa: The Theft that Created a Legend.” CNN.com. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/18/world/europe/mona-lisa-the-theft/index.html.
The Theft that Made ‘Mona Lisa’ a Masterpiece. NPR.com. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2011/07/30/138800110/the-theft-that-made-the-mona-lisa-a-masterpiece.
“Lost Art: Chasing the Elusive Ghent Altarpiece Panel by Noah Charney.” TheArtNewspaper.com. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/lost-art-chasing-the-elusive-ghent-altarpiece-panel.