Taking an In Depth Look At Some of the Art World’s Biggest Art Heists

This week we’re delving into a few of the 20th century’s biggest art heists, from Nazi looted medieval treasures of Western art, mafia motivated thefts, and canvases plucked from private collections. Sending ripples throughout the global art community, the irresistible subject is much less glamorous in reality.
Featured Image: Empty Frames: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

When we discuss the art world, more often than not the topic of theft, heists and complex schemes to loot some of the most famous artworks around the world will crop up. The irresistible subject recalls images of unmarked vans whisking away these treasures in a romanticized narrative of true crime. The reality, however, is much less glamourous and much more concerning for the integrity and safety of the artworks for future generations to continue to enjoy.

With the news of an art theft rippling throughout the global art community, one of the first thoughts many art professionals have is, “has it been destroyed?” The sinking feeling of worry that work has been destroyed can outweigh the obvious concern of where the artwork is. In some cases, like the famed 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, many of the artworks are never recovered or otherwise assumed destroyed, and cause everlasting holes in the fabric of the institution’s or collector’s collection.

This week we’re delving into a few of the biggest art heists in recent history, from Nazi-looted medieval treasures of Western art, mafia-motivated thefts, and canvases stolen in broad daylight from private homes.

1934/ 1944 Ghent Altarpiece

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, oil on oak panels, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, also known as the “Ghent Altarpiece”, has one of the most checkered theft histories. The iconic work is known to have advanced Western art traditions with its iterations of observed naturalism and human representation covering a survey of Christian histories and narratives. The magnificent piece was composed of many ornately painted panels purportedly fixed with special mechanisms for protective shutters, clockworks and musical devices. The work, dubbed “the first major oil painting”, was nearly burned completely during the Reformation (although many panels, missing tracery and ornate outer frame were lost during this period), was stolen by Napoleon, targeted during the First World War and more recently stolen by Hitler’s Nazi’s in 1934.

In April of 1934, one of the panels, “The Just (or Righteous) Judges” was stolen from the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. Police were run off their feet with leads, false information and coinciding crimes taking place and were unable to recover the piece. A ransom demand of 1 million Belgian Francs was posted but the case ran cold. A stockbroker, Arsène Goedertier, claimed on his deathbed that he knew where the panel was, but unfortunately, authorities could not uncover the work.

Archival image showing the missing panel placement

During the second world war, 10 years after the theft, Joseph Goebbels sent an art detective, Heinrich Köhn, to Ghent to find the lost Judges panel as a gift for Hitler. The panel was never found, however, and the case is still ongoing. Many tips and leads were followed up on, including the Nazi closure of the cathedral for the purposes of a full search in the building for the panel, but the work remained hidden. Detectives contacted about 350 possible locations for the missing “Judges” panel, none of them correct. St. Bavo Cathedral has been searched six times since the second world war including a supervised x-ray of the whole cathedral to a depth of 10 meters. The Monuments Men did recover portions of the altarpiece after it had been stolen multiple times during the Second World War, but alas, the complete work has yet to be whole again.

1972- Canada’s Largest Art Heist

Courtesy Library and Archives Canada (OCLC NO. 43834165, Montréal-Matin, p. 3)

One may think the biggest crime in Canada involves a $9 million truckload of maple syrup (true story), however, one of the largest art heists occurred at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art in 1972. Known as the ‘Skylight Capper’, the theft included 39 jewelry objects and figurines and 18 paintings including a rare Rembrandt landscape and works by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Corot, Delacroix, Rubens, and Thomas Gainsborough. The collection of stolen works at the time was valued at approximately $2 million, however, in today’s market, the pieces collectively are valued at over $20 million, the paintings alone making up $11.7 million of that figure.

On the evening of September 4th (the September Labour Day holiday weekend that year in Canada), three armed robbers took advantage of the holiday’s short staffing and weakened security team, in addition to the intense media coverage of the Olympics that year and a disastrous fire in Montreal which occurred the night prior, and entered the museum through a skylight which was under repair. They then tied up three guards on duty and carefully selected the works to loot. The paintings were about the size of an A4 sheet of paper for easier transport, and efficient theft and easier salability.

Many of the works had been part of “Masterpieces from Montreal”, a travelling exhibition that had been to many museums in the U.S. and Canada prior to Expo 67, as well as some other special exhibits put on by the museum in the preceding years. This was suspected to be a strategic target for a more lucrative bargaining chip for ransom given the high profile of the works. Only one of the Brueghels was returned by the thieves as an initiative to start ransom negotiations. However, none of the remaining paintings or objects were returned or found. The three robbers have never been identified or arrested, although there is at least one unofficial suspect known to authorities. It is not only the largest art theft in Canada but the largest theft in Canadian history.

2002- Mafia-connected Thieves Steal Van Gogh’s from Amsterdam

Director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum Axel Rueger, center, stands next to the paintings Congregation Leaving The Reformed Church of Nuenen, left, and 1882 Seascape at Scheveningen by Vincent Van Gogh, during a press conference in Naples, Italy, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. The paintings which had been stolen in an Amsterdam museum in 2002, were recovered by Naples investigators among the assets of a Camorra group. (Ciro Fusco/ANSA via AP)

On December 7, 2002, Octave Durham and Henk Bieslijn scaled the side of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with a ladder and proceeded to smash the windows of the institution to gain access. The thieves grabbed the closest artworks in sight, “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884–85) and “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” (1882) before rappelling down a rope out of a museum window. Both works are very early examples of the artist’s works and held sentimental and biographical significance to Van Gogh and the estate. The former was a depiction of the family’s church, and the latter was from a time when a younger Vincent was studying near the Hague. A museum guard called the police once they realized what was happening, however during the descent, Durham hit the ground with such force that he damaged a corner of “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” which has since been restored after a 2017 exhibition.

Like other art thieves before him, Durham tried to sell the paintings but was fraught with difficulties including a foiled sale due to a murder. Eventually, the works were purchased by Raffaele Imperiale, a chief of the Camorra crime family, for €350,000 in March of 2003. Imperiale sent the works to Italy shortly after purchasing them, while Durham and his accomplice spent all the profits in six weeks. This unusual spending pattern is what tipped off authorities. Police had already been watching Durham and Bieslijn and eventually caught Duraham after he narrowly escaped. They had caught up with Durham in a Spanish resort town and were able to match his DNA to a baseball cap left at the museum.

As part of his sentence for the heist, Durham was required to pay the museum €350,000 for the paintings, which were still missing at the time of his release from jail in 2006. However, the whereabouts of the works were still a mystery until Imperiale wrote a letter in 2016, to Vincenza Marra, the public prosecutor, saying that he had the Van Gogh paintings. In 2016, Italian Police raided the house of Imperiale’s mother as part of a drug-trafficking investigation and found, hidden between two walls wrapped in cloth, the two Van Gogh paintings.

The pieces were then safely returned to the Netherlands after being exhibited for three weeks at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples.

2011- Renoir Looted from Houston Home

Piere-Auguste Renoir, “Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair”, 1918, oil on canvas, 50.17 x 41.28 cm

On September 8, 2011, “Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair” (1918) by Pierre Auguste Renoir was stolen during an armed robbery in a Houston, Texas home. The homeowner was watching television when she heard a loud noise downstairs and when she went to investigate, was confronted by a man in a ski mask and a semi-automatic weapon. The painting was taken with its frame intact from the stairwell where it hung. The artwork depicts Madeleine Bruno, a simple village girl who became the model for Renoir in the last years of his life. Painted during the “Red Period” of the artist’s work, Renoir sought to convey the madness of life, which is hidden behind an attractive female body with his selected colour palette radiating warmth.

“If the thief tries to place the painting with a reputable dealer or gallery, or tries to sell it at auction, members of the art community here and overseas who regularly check these databases will see that the artwork has been stolen and will alert the FBI,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the Bureau’s art theft program. “Our goal is to provide information about this theft to the widest audience possible,” she said.

Currently a private insurer is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to the recovery of the painting as its whereabouts are still unknown.

2015- Francis Bacon Works Stolen in Madrid

A photo released by Spanish police of one of the five Bacons stolen last July. Photograph: Spanish national police/EPA

Five artworks by Francis Bacon were stolen from the Madrid home of José Capelo Blanco, a Spanish friend and lover of the painter who inherited the artworks when Bacon died in 1992. Of the five paintings which were stolen, two pieces were a rare double portrait and the collective value of the five works stood at approximately $29 million. The theft occurred while Capelo was away in London and the thieves also stole a large safe containing jewels, coins and other valuables.

Bacon had met Capelo, the young financier at a party in the honor of the choreographer Frederick Ashton, when the artist was 78 years old and Capelo 35. Capelo went on to pose for the artist on several occasions, including for a 1987 portrait and a 1991 triptych that is currently part of the MoMA collection.

It was only in 2016 that the heist was made public after a total of seven arrests were made in connection with the crime. Investigators found out that the thieves had been in touch with a Madrid-based art dealer and his son–who turned out to be the ones who had gotten in touch with the British company that originally tipped off the police– to inquire about the status of one of the stolen works. Three other individuals, who were contacted by the dealers and offered the stolen works, were also identified and arrested.

After images were submitted including pictures of the artist’s signature on the reverse of one of the works, authorities could identify the camera used, locate the company that rented it out, and subsequently, find out who had rented it. The renter turned out to be one of the perpetrators. However, the paintings themselves have not been located yet and to date, the entire theft is Spain’s largest art heist in recent history.

Whether a grande scheme or a less sophisticated gamble to pillage some of the world’s greatest examples of art, art heists and crime remain to be one of the most frustrating and intriguing areas of the art world. With war, destruction, greed and desperation, some of the most vulnerable pieces of cultural history have proven to become targets during trying times.

Check out some of these great informative and entertaining films and documentaries on art heists!

  • “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” (2021)
  • “The Rape of Europa” (2006)– based on the facinating book by the same title
  • “The Monuments Men” (2014)
  • “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1999)
  • “Trance” (2013)
Katlin Rogers
Katlin Rogers
Katlin is a Toronto-based fine art specialist and appraiser. She holds a Master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London and enjoys writing on topics surrounding the globalization of the art world, politics and ethics in art, and post-colonial theories in contemporary art.