Thief! Top 10 Art Heists

By now you’ve doubtless heard about the brazen art heist in France.  The security system at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, had been broken since March 30 this year.  On May 20, a lone burglar wearing a face mask cut a padlock and broke a window to gain entry to the museum.  He stole five paintings (a Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, and Modigliani, worth a combined $120 Million) and disappeared.Paintings stolen from the Paris Museum

As bold as the Paris thief was, this robbery is not as impressive as some others in the past.  For your reading pleasure, I’ve listed

The Top 10 Art Heists in History

10- The aforementioned Paris theft.

9. Public Service Heist [April 2003]

Sometime during the night, thieves managed to evade CCTV, a night patrol, and all of the Whitworth Art Gallery‘s security alarms, gather the three most valuable paintings in the gallery, and disappear into the night.  The museum was unaware of the theft until moments before opening to the public on the following day.  A day later, police were contacted by an anonymous caller who said the paintings were behind a toilet in a public bathroom near the museum.  They were found there, together with a note explaining that they did not intend to steal these paintings, just wanted to highlight security weaknesses.  The paintings were damaged, but reparable, and were reclaimed by the museum.

8. Frankfurt Theft & Operation Cobalt

This is sheer genius on the part of the Tate Gallery’s director Nicholas Serota, who arranged to secretly buy back two of its Turner paintings stolen while on display in a German gallery.  The burglars hid in the museum until it was locked for the night, then overpowered the guards and made off with three paintings (combined value of £30 million). Two thieves were caught but the paintings were not found, so the Tate received compensation from the insurance company–a fraction of which they used to buy back the paintings directly from the thieves.  The result?  A 20 million euro profit for the Tate Gallery.

7. Tunneling to Riches in Paraguay [July 2002]

This heist was a long time in planning, and wins points for its ‘Great-Escape’ resemblance.  The would-be thieves rented a store under a fake name near Paraguay’s National Fine Arts Museum, dug an 80 ft long tunnel into the museum, and entered after it closed.  Once inside, they took 5 paintings and exited from the building’s balconies.

6. The ‘Fishing Line’ Theft [April, 1987]

Most museums don’t have the sophisticated laser-alarm system depicted in the movies, but this one did.  How’d the thief get around it? The title gives it away: he cut a hole in a gallery window, lowered a thin fishing line and a hook through it, and ‘fished’ up a 14″ x 18″ Renoir painting (Bouquet d’Anemones dans une Vase Verre).  The painting turned up four years later in Japan, by an owner who had purchased it in good faith.  The thief was never caught.

5. Smuggling the Mona Lisa [August, 1911]

This is a crazy story.  The Mona Lisa disappeared from its frame in the Louvre on the morning of August 21.  The museum didn’t know it was stolen until the next day; everyone had assumed it was out for cleaning, or photography. An outspoken poet was arrested on suspicion of the theft, and his friend Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning. Neither of them had anything to do with it.  Who did?  The mastermind was Eduardo de Valfierno, who planned to sell forgeries of the painting as ‘the returned original’.  He had Louvre custodian Vincenzo Peruggia snatch the painting from the wall, tuck it under his coat, and exit the museum. Voila! the Mona Lisa was gone.  Peruggia was arrested in 1913 when he tried to sell the paining in Florence.

4. Speedboat & Decoys [December 2000]

This one wins the prize for best getaway.  Three armed thieves broke into the waterfront National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden.  They swiped one Rembrandt and two Renoirs, (collective value of $30 million) while accomplices set off car bombs at the opposite end of the city to distract the police and laid tire spikes on the roads approaching the museum.  The men left in a speedboat while the police were dealing with flat tires.   The men weren’t so good at the post-heist planning: eight were arrested in less than two weeks, and the paintings were recovered by 2005.

3. The Thief Known as ‘The Monkey’
[December 2002]

All he needed was a ladder and rope.  Workmen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, left a ladder propped against the window of an upper gallery. Two men climbed the ladder in plain view, broke the window with their elbows, set off alarms as they snatched two paintings (worth a collective $8 million) and used the rope to escape before police arrived. Their sense of style was their undoing: police arrested the men two years later based on DNA evidence gathered from hats left at the scene.  The paintings were not recovered. If they’re clever, once they finish their sentences the thieves will wait 18 years, then claim ownership: Dutch law will recognize them as rightful owners if they can prove they stole the pieces.

2. Norway, The Scream
[February 1994]

Speed and daring: this daylight theft took less than 2 minutes.  Days before the start of the Olympic games in Lillehammer, Norway, two men climbed a ladder, broke a window in Oslo’s National Art Museum, cut Munch’s Scream off the wall with wire cutters, and fled with the painting.  They left a note reading, “Thanks for the poor security.” The museum received a $1 million ransom demand, but refused to pay, and recovered the painting in a sting operation in May 1994.  By January 1996, four men were convicted for the theft.

1. Gardner Museum Heist [March 1990]

The grandaddy of them all, this theft included 13 paintings, worth a collective $300 million, making it the largest art heist in US history. The night of St. Patrick’s day, two men in Boston, MA, dressed up in police uniforms & costume mustaches, and had the museum’s night security let them in, saying they were responding to a ‘disturbance’.  Once inside they bound the two guards, took 13 art pieces, and disappeared.  The theft was not discovered until 8:30 the next morning, and despite a full-scale FBI investigation, the case was never solved.  The statute of limitation has run out, so if the thieves still have the paintings they now own them.   The FBI has offered a no-questions-asked reward of $5 million for information leading to the recover of the paintings, and their empty frames are still displayed at the Gardner Museums as reminders of the theft.

Published by

Renee Bolinger

Renee graduated Summa Cum Laude from Biola University in December 2009, earning a B.S. in Studio Arts and a B.A. in Philosophy. While at the school, she was awarded the ‘Outstanding Thesis Presentation’ by the Philosophy department, and the ‘Order of Peter & Paul’ by the Torrey Honors Institute. At present she is a practicing artist, working towards a Masters degree in philosophy at Northern Illinois University. Renee is passionate about making art and helping people understand it.

  • joemedeiros

    For the past two years, I’ve been making a documentary on Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa. And I can tell you that there is absolutely no proof that Eduardo Valfierno ever existed, He comes from a story written by a former Hearst journalist named Karl Decker in 1932. Our research has shown us who Decker may have based the character of Valfierno on, but that person (or persons) had nothing to do with the theft of the Mona Lisa. It was all the hapless plan of Vincenzo Peruggia. Check out our website :

  • Renee Bolinger

    Joe- That's interesting. I didn't come across this information in my initial research. I did think the 'plan' to sell forgeries of the original might get Valfierno in some legal trouble. Do you have a release date for the documentary? I'm interested.