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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Priceless and stolen: The greatest art heists of this century

As the Netflix docuseries ‘This is a Robbery’ returns focus to the infamous Boston art theft of 1990, here is a list of some of the other sensational crimes of this kind.

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 20, 2021 7:53:27 am
Cézanne’s ‘Boy in the Red Waistcoat’. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Early on March 18, 1990, the morning after St Patrick’s Day, two men dressed as police officers walked into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Eighty-one minutes later, they walked out with 13 artworks valued at $500 million, including works by the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt, Frenchmen Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, and the Dutchman Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Concert’, which is considered to be one of the most expensive of missing artworks.

More than three decades on, the empty frames from which the canvases were cut continue to hang at the museum, the mystery remains unsolved, the FBI investigation is still active, and there is a $10 million reward for information on the thieves and the artworks. No arrests have been made.

A four-part Netflix docuseries called ‘This is a Robbery’, directed by Colin Barnicle, now sheds fresh light on the heist, and includes never-seen-before photographs of the crime scene. The theft remains one of the biggest and most intriguing of its kind, including some of the other ones — both solved and unsolved — that followed.


In one of the most elaborate art heists in history, thieves exploded two cars across Stockholm to divert police resources while robbing the National Museum of Fine Arts.

The thieves entered the museum with machine guns, quickly retrieving a self-portrait by Rembrandt as well as two paintings by Renoir, and retreated on a motorboat from the museum waterfront.

While the police arrested all the men involved in the heist within weeks, the works appeared later, starting with the recovery of Renoir’s ‘Conversation with the Gardener’ in 2001 during a drug raid. By 2005, all three works had been reported recovered.

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A version of the Norwegian master Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, as well as his ‘Madonna’, were robbed in broad daylight in August 2004, by two men who entered Oslo’s Munch Museum with a pistol and walked out with the works.

The paintings were recovered in 2006, months after six suspects were arrested for its theft.

Another version of the ‘The Scream’ had been stolen on the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, when two thieves entered the National Museum in Oslo and cut a wire holding the canvas on the wall and escaped with the framed painting.

The thieves left behind a note that read: “Thousand thanks for the bad security!”

The government refused to pay the $1 million demanded by the thieves, citing lack of proof that the demand was genuine. The work was eventually recovered undamaged three months later at a hotel in the small Norwegian port town of Asgardstrand.

In 1996, four men were convicted and sentenced for the theft.

Monet’s ‘Poppy Field at Vetheuil’. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Artworks estimated to be worth £84 million — Cézanne’s ‘Boy in the Red Waistcoat’, Monet’s ‘Poppy Field at Vetheuil’, Edgar Degas’s ‘Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters’, and Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Blooming Chestnut Branches’ — were stolen from Zurich’s Emil Buehrle Collection in 2008, in what was described as one of the biggest art thefts in Europe.

Three masked men entered the museum when it was open for visitors, and as one of them held up museum personnel at the entrance with a pistol, the other two went into the exhibition hall and stole the works.

While the works by van Gogh and Monet were found within a few days in an abandoned vehicle in a car park, the Cézanne was traced to Serbia in 2012 when four Serbian men were arrested for the theft.


Around 3 am on April 20, 2010, Vjeran Tomic, an avid rock climber nicknamed ‘Spiderman’ by the French media, walked up a bay window at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, cut a padlock and smashed the glass to enter the museum located close to Champs Elysées and the Eiffel Tower.

Arrested next year, he said he had only entered for Fernand Léger’s ‘Still Life with Candlestick’, but eventually took with him four other works — Pablo Picasso’s ‘Dove with Green Peas’, Henri Matisse’s ‘Pastoral’, George Braque’s ‘Olive Tree near Estaque’, and Amedeo Modigliani’s ‘Woman with a Fan’.

While Tomic was sentenced to eight years in prison, his accomplices Jean-Michel Corvez, who allegedly ordered the heist, and Yonathan Birn, who reportedly hid the paintings, were also given prison sentences. The trio were also ordered to pay the city of Paris €104 million in compensation, apart from other fines.

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Earlier this month, Dutch police arrested a suspect for stealing van Gogh’s ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ and Frans Hals’s ‘Two Laughing Boys’ from museums in the Netherlands when they were shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The van Gogh was carried on a motorbike by a thief who smashed the glass front door of the Singer Laren Museum, which had loaned the painting from the Groninger Museum in Groningen.

The Hal was stolen in August from Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam in the west of the country. The 1626 oil, depicting laughing boys with a mug of beer, had been previously stolen from the museum in 2011 and 1988. It was recovered within a few months on both occasions.

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was missing for almost two decades after it was stolen from Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Piacenza, Italy, in 1997

Stolen masterpieces

* Arguably the most famous artwork in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian employee of the museum, who believed the work should be reclaimed by his homeland. The work came back to the museum in 1913.

* In 1969, thieves walked out with Caravaggio’s ‘Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence’ from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. The work is still missing.

* Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was missing for almost two decades after it was stolen from Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Piacenza, Italy, in 1997. In 2019, the work was found by the museum gardener in a trash bag behind a wall panel. Two men confessed to have committed the crime and claimed they had returned it as a gift to the city.

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