The Greatest Unsolved Art Thefts

While most of the thousands of art thefts around the world are solved rather quickly, a few cases have proved frustrating for authorities. The original article I wrote can be found here.


According to the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), art theft is the third most lucrative criminal enterprise after drug trafficking and arms dealing. Though the public may think of the thieves as isolated and obsessed art lovers, the reality is that the vast majority of stolen art is taken by agents of organized crime syndicates for the purposes of ransom, negotiation, or funding of other criminal activities, such as terrorism.

Italy is the nation with the most art thefts by far — roughly 25,000 per year, leaving second-place Russia in the dust, with a “mere” 2,000 artworks stolen per year. In many cases, the thieves are apprehended and the artwork is recovered in relatively short order. In a few infamous cases, however, priceless artworks remain missing, and criminals remain at large.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Very early on the morning of March 18, 1990, two white males in police uniforms showed up at the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. They claimed they had received a disturbance call; museum guards let them in. The phony police officers, who appeared to be unarmed, overpowered the guards, tied them up, and locked them in the basement. Then, for the next hour and a half, the thieves proceeded to filch several valuable and irreplaceable works of art, simply cutting the paintings neatly from their frames.

Among the stolen artworks were Vermeer’s The Concert, Manet’s Chez Tortoni, and three works by Rembrandt, including his only marine-themed painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The two men also made off with five Degas drawings, a painting by Govaert Flinck, and a bronze beaker from the Chinese Shang Dynasty. Altogether, the works have an estimated value of $300 million. The FBI worked diligently to find the perpetrators, following several leads, a few of which hinted at the involvement of the IRA. Despite their efforts, and the $5 million reward offered for return of the artwork, the empty frames of the stolen masterpieces still hang on the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, nearly two decades later.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Sometime during the New Year’s revelry surrounding the transition from 1999 to 2000, thieves crept through some continuing construction work and broke the glass ceiling of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. They lowered themselves to the floor on rope ladders and snatched the museum’s only Cézanne, a painting called Auvers-sur-Oise, valued at nearly $5 million. The Ashmolean was founded in 1683, making it the oldest public museum in the world, and through the years it has seen its fair share of thefts, both attempted and successful. The security had been beefed up in 1992, but this measure did not prevent the loss of the prized Cézanne, which is still missing.

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Two paintings by Vincent Van Gogh — View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen — were swiped in December 2002 by two men who broke in through the roof of the building. The men were caught and convicted only a year later, but of the two paintings, valued at about $30 million, there has been no sign.

A Catch-All of More Top Art Thefts

  • In February 2006, four armed men stormed into the Museu Chacara do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro and made off with four modern masterpieces by Dali, Matisse, Picasso and Monet.
  • A Cavalier, a self-portrait by Dutch master Frans Van Mieris valued at $1 million, was stolen in June 2007 from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, while the gallery was open to the public.
  • Two oil paintings by Maxfield Parrish were cut from their frames and taken from a gallery in West Hollywood, California in July 2002. The paintings, part of a series commissioned by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, are valued at $4 million.
  • In February 2008, four paintings were stolen from the E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland. Two were recovered, but Count Lepic and His Daughters by Degas and Boy in the Red Vest by Cézanne are still missing.
  • Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, worth $20 million, was taken from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy in October 1969. Its whereabouts are still unknown forty years later.

The FBI maintains files on all these crimes and more.

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