Art theft, also affectionately called art napping, has been with us for centuries now. The purpose of this highly dangerous and illegal activity can be intuitively inferred: some do it because they dream of creating their own private collections, but they do not have the necessary financial resources; others do it for the money they get after selling the precious art pieces. The bad news, however, is that the estimated successful recovery rate for stolen art is of a roughly 5-10%. There are many fictional books venturing into the world of art thieves, but the truth is that today there is little known about how they operate, about the tactics and the tech they use, or about the black market were they find buyers for the stolen art pieces. The world has lost some of the most valuable works of art ever to be created, only to recover a few. Let us have a look at 3 famous cases of art theft.
1. The Theft of “Mona Lisa”
One of the earliest art theft cases dates back as far as 1911. On the 21st of August, Vicenzo Peruggia attempted and succeeded in stealing the famous “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre, after having been safely on display for more than five years. At first, Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet, and Pablo Picasso were presumably suspected of the theft, but, as it turns out, Louvre employee Vicenzo Peruggia had devised a perfect plan to smuggle the painting out of the museum without ever being suspected. It is said that he visited the museum during the day, and then hid in a broom closet for the rest of the night, walking out of the building the next morning with “Mona Lisa” under his coat. It was a pretty simple and clever plan. For two years the authorities had no clue that the painting was sitting in his apartment waiting to be sold in Italy until the day Vicenzo decided it was time to take it out for a ride. He was caught just as he was trying to close a deal with the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
2. The largest art theft in world history
The largest art theft in the world is a rather recent event as it happened in 1990, on the 18th of March. Dressed as Boston police officers, the thieves had no trouble with accessing the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum during the early hours of St. Patrick’s Day. They targeted some of the most expensive paintings and relics that the museum had on display at that time, the stolen pieces amounting to a total sum of $500 million. Thirteen works of art were taken that day including: “The Concert” by Vermeer, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt, a landscape attributed to the artist and one of his postage-stamp-sized Self-Portraits, together with 5 paintings by Degas, “Chez Tortoni” by Manet, and two other valuable relics. None of the art pieces have been recovered until today, although a considerable reward has been offered for any useful information.
3. The theft of Edward Munch’s “The Scream”
The Norwegian painter Edward Munch is famous throughout the world for his “The Scream” which is actually the name of a collection of four paintings, all versions on the same composition. All of them have been targeted several times by various art thieves, and on two occasions they went missing. The first successful attempt was made in 1994, on the 22nd of February, just as everyone was preparing for the Winter Olympics and the festivities. At that time one version of the painting was on display at the National Gallery in Oslo. However, the thieves were so unimpressed with the challenge of stealing the painting that they even left the memorable note: “Thanks for the poor security!”. After the incident they demanded a ransom of US$1 million which the Norwegian police refused to pay. The painting was recovered a few months later after an undercover operation. The interesting part with this case is that, although two years later four men were convicted for the theft, they never went to prison, being released on legal grounds.