On the art of stealing art

30 March 2020 – all is quiet in The Hague, and a Van Gogh painting is stolen from the Singer Laren museum. The alarm system is triggered, but the thieves have got away before the police arrive, with a painting estimated to be worth more than 6 million euros. Another work has just made its way onto the Interpol art theft register. Art theft has long been with us, from the wholesale ripping-off of cultural treasures during various wars to nimble five-finger discounting of jewellery and other decorative arts. But sometimes, the theft itself is artful. In this article, Dr Nick Gordon discusses some of the great art heists of the recent past.

On stealing art

Art is often trafficked, with various degrees of legality. Artworks have been legally taken through treaties at the conclusion of wars or as a quasi-legitimate part of the sack of a city; they’ve been sold by a contract made when the seller is under significant duress, or through the systematic undervaluing of Indigenous art by dodgy dealers. Indeed, these types of trafficking even apply to works of art that you might not initially think of as being portable – Venetians, for example, took whole chunks of buildings home from Constantinople, the French later cut frescoes out of walls in Venice, and so it goes on.

Each of these cases piques a sense of wrongdoing but a great heist, however, is another thing all together. We have so many stories of heists in popular culture that we hardly need to try to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations. A heist can be easily romanticised (Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean), it can be made a subject of comedy (How to Steal a Million, Orson Welles’s F for Fake), or it can be made into a drama of detection.

And yet… art theft is an alarmingly common phenomenon, as databases compiled by Interpol or the FBI’s art-theft register make clear. It’s estimated that in Italy alone about 8,000 artworks and artefacts go missing each year – Italy has an extraordinary density of art, with more than 180 million pieces catalogued to date. In France, more than 200 works go missing just from churches alone each year. Some of these thefts have become well known, such as the extraordinary multiple thefts from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (www.gardnermuseum.org/about/theft-story) – No 1 on the FBI’s list of unsolved art crimes – or the Mafia-linked theft of a painting by Caravaggio from Palermo’s Oratory of San Lorenzo in the 1960s (www.theguardian.com/stolen-caravaggio-artwork-sicily-mystery-50-years-on).

Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni – one of 13 works stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist

This volume of art doesn’t get stolen on a whim – someone wants it and either can’t get it legally, or is unwilling to pay the required sum for it. Art theft is a demand and supply market, worth more than 6 billion Euros a year according to Interpol. In this market are professional thieves who find weaknesses in security systems and exploit them for probably quite significant sums of cash. The professionals are usually many steps removed from the buyer, making the works very difficult to trace once they’ve left the building. Some are extremely well-organised, such as the ‘Pink Panthers’ who are believed to be behind the theft of priceless Mughal jewellery from the Qatari royal family’s collection, which happened when pieces were recently on display in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale (www.jewellermagazine.com/Pink-Panthers-Europes-mysterious-gang-of-thieves).

Nonetheless, there are also quite a few charmingly simple thefts, such as this one from Russia’s Tretyakov Gallery (www.youtube.com/watch), or the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. The famous lady probably hung in the thief’s apartment until 1913, when he tried to sell it in Florence and was caught. His excuse? He believed he was effecting an act of repatriation, even though the Mona Lisa had been legitimately acquired by the French monarchy in the 16th century. (Read this TIME article on that theft. content.time.com/time/arts/article/)

Officials gather around da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ upon its return to Paris, 4th January 1914. It was stolen from the Musee du Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

So with so much to choose from, I’ve selected a few different types of art theft to look at here, from the humble smash-and-grab to some of the most perplexing and well-executed heists in history.

Melbourne, 1986 – Australia’s greatest unsolved art theft

“We have stolen the Picasso from the National Gallery as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy, unimaginative stupidity and administration of that funding.” So said the first ransom note of the Australian Cultural Terrorists, who stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986. It’s probably Australia’s most significant art theft and it remains unsolved.

Picasso’s Weeping Woman, stolen from the NGV in 1986

The painting had been recently bought by the gallery for $1.6 million dollars – a little more expensive than Blue Poles a decade earlier. Hanging on the wall, the NGV’s new pride and joy was a portrait of Dora Maar. Patrick McCaughey, the then-director, had said, “This face is going to haunt Melbourne for the next 100 years… Everyone will come to know it very well indeed, I hope.” Eight months later, on a Saturday evening in August, a thief or group of thieves simply took the painting off the wall, removed the canvas from its frame, and walked out with it at some later point. None of the timeline is known more precisely. The gallery’s security measures was defeated using nothing more sophisticated than a screwdriver to take the frame off the wall – CCTV in galleries was not yet in common usage. Perhaps it was easier to get away with the crime in August, when long coats (to hide paintings under) are not suspicious.

The theft wasn’t noticed until the Monday two days’ later: an NGV employee noticed that the painting was gone and alerted security. The head of security intercepted the director on the way to his office, and they ran downstairs in disbelief. In place of the painting was a simple registrar’s card – the sort you see in galleries when a work is taken down or sent away on loan – saying the painting had “been removed to the A.C.T.” Not Canberra as it turned out. McCaughey personally started searching the building – bathrooms, closets, stair wells. The frame was found on a display case less than 30 metres away, yet no one had noticed anything for more than 24 hours – despite the gallery opening as normal on the Sunday. Surely this was an inside job, or at least one done by someone with good knowledge of gallery practices and security.

That morning The Age received a typed letter announcing that the A.C.T. had stolen it and proposing a ransom – an increase in arts funding and some grants to young artists to make new work. “At the end of seven days if our demands have not been met, the painting will be destroyed and our campaign will continue.” The Age published the ransom note but the Minister for the Arts and the Police, Race Matthews, understandably refused to cough up the money. Another letter arrived at The Age: Matthews was nothing more than “a pompous fathead”, “a tiresome old bag of swamp gas” and the “Minister of Plod”; if a $25,000 art prize called “The Picasso Ransom” was not established by week’s end, the group would burn the painting. A burnt match was included with this second letter.

Newspaper excerpt from Weeping Woman theft

The week passed, and there was no further communication. (B.A. Santamaria, in the meantime, proffered his opinion: if they burnt it, then the thieves “should be awarded the Order of Australia.”) Rumours began to circulate around the Melbourne art world – Anna Schwarz called McCaughey while he was hosting a dinner party and let him know that he should go to the studio of artist Mark Howson to talk to him about it. McCaughey went, made it clear he was interested in the return of the painting rather than a prosecution, and was struck by the news clippings of the theft pinned to the walls. But there was no result. As McCaughey recollected, Howson said he’d “almost forgotten about the whole matter.”

Sixteen days after the theft, Vic police received an anonymous phone call saying the painting was in Locker 277 at Spencer Street Station. McCaughey soon arrived at the locker, the police following an hour later. A crowd had assembled to watch as the cubicle was unlocked. Inside they found a perfectly wrapped and undamaged painting, along with a letter saying that the A.C.T. knew their demands would never be met and that their “intention was always to bring to public attention the plight of a group which lacks any legitimate means of blackmailing a government.”

The thieves disappeared without a trace. Some women with packages, coats and hats had been seen near the Spencer Street lockers, but none who could be identified. And so the case stands today: it is presumed the thieves came in on the Saturday during regular opening hours, took the painting at night, and walked out after the gallery opened on Sunday morning. Nothing more is known. The painting is now estimated to be worth $100 million dollars.

Ballarat 1978: theft can be this simple

The Picasso wasn’t the first major painting to be stolen from a major Victorian gallery. In 1978 Tom Roberts’ The Wood Splitters – an iconic piece of the Heidelberg School – went missing from Ballarat Art Gallery. It was a remarkably simple crime, carried out by a suspect identified only as “a man with crutches and a cast.” Sometime between 3.30 and 4.30 on a Monday afternoon, the man went up to the painting, cut it from its frame with a knife, and walked back out. On Tuesday afternoon, someone finally noticed that it was gone.

Tom Roberts’ The Wood Splitters, stolen from the Ballarat Art Gallery in 1978

Regional galleries in the 1970s were severely cash-strapped and chronically understaffed, so this case raised headlines and elicited calls to improve security immediately. The gallery, which was already in the process of being passed over to the ownership of the City of Ballarat, gained two more employees within a couple of months. But still no painting.

Some months later, a Sydney gallerist called the gallery director saying he had information about the painting, which could be returned for a ransom. The ransom – an undisclosed sum – was paid, and the painting was picked up from a park in Sydney. The thief has never been caught or publicly identified. Perhaps he thought he could flog the painting on the black market but couldn’t find a buyer, so decided to return it for ransom. This is an iconic Australian painting, shown in every major textbook on the Heidelberg School.

CCTV in regional galleries has made it slightly harder to steal so brazenly and get away with it. In 2008, for example, a man stole two paintings from Katoomba Fine Art Gallery and was caught on camera. He was a good lawyer and argued successfully that he was suffering dissociative amnesia at the time. The gallery got the paintings back and the thief received a two-year good behaviour bond.

One Vermeer, two thefts

Vermeer’s Lady writing a letter with her maid is the only Vermeer in private hands that we know of, and is part of the Beit Collection, mostly assembled by Alfred and Sir Otto Beit. (The Beits were business partners in the African gold and diamond enterprises of Cecil Rhodes, for whom Rhodesia was named.) In the early hours of April 1986, thieves attempted to break in – by cutting a hole in a window – to Russborough House in Ireland, where the collection resided with Sir Otto’s son. The thieves were a bit clumsy and set off the infrared alarm system, however, so they went and hid behind some bushes near the back door. The administrator of the collection took a walk around the floor but found nothing suspicious; the police followed a bit later and also looked around but as they found nothing suspicious everyone went back to bed. Shortly afterwards, the thieves re-entered the house and took 18 paintings valued at more than $45 million. It’s believed it took them a mere six minutes.

Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, first stolen on 27 April 1974, along with a Goya, two Gainsboroughs and three Rubens

The theft was discovered the next morning. The police blamed the IRA, probably because the group was perpetually short of cash and had stolen this Vermeer from the same house before, in 1974. On that occasion, Rose Dugdale, whose father was an underwriter of Lloyd’s of London and who had been ‘corrupted’ by reading philosophy at Oxford, pistol-whipped the owner and his wife and took the paintings to raise cash for the IRA. (She was already wanted at the time, after she and her boyfriend Eddie Gallagher hijacked a helicopter and attempted to bomb the Royal Ulster Constabulary.) An extensive search carried out one day after the second theft led to the discovery of seven of the stolen paintings in a ditch near the back of the estate. These were assessed as the least valuable of the works taken. Had the IRA been studying more art history?

Rumours soon whispered that the pictures had been stolen by ‘The General’ – Martin Cahill, the notorious underworld boss of Dublin – but no one would put their neck on the line to give a solid lead against him. A ransom was requested for the paintings: 20 million quid for their safe return, substantially less than their market value. It was not paid, and the paintings disappeared. They were too famous to sell openly – one could hardly show them to one’s guests in the smoking room, after all. But then the stolen artworks began to turn up, during drug raids in London and Istanbul, perhaps traded as payment in kind for vast quantities of heroin. The remaining works, including the Vermeer, were still missing some years later.

But Scotland Yard had a detective on the case, and one who was rather passionate about it. This was Charley Hill’s first major art theft case and it was the one that would make him famous. He pursued it relentlessly, tracking the painting to Antwerp and posing as a black market collector with a transatlantic accent and as a “dealer who had Arab buyers lined up for the Vermeer.” He arranged to buy the works, and was taken to a car park in Antwerp. There was the Vermeer, in the back of a car, wrapped up in a Goya from the same collection.

The Art World’s most high-profile detective, Charley Hill

Charley Hill went on to become probably the world’s most successful art detective – he has, among other things, recovered Munch’s The Scream and stolen works by Titian and he is currently, among many other cases, tracking down Maurizio Cattelan’s work America, a golden toilet that was stolen two years ago from Blenheim Palace. You can read an interesting interview with him, conducted by his new side kick, here (theartdetectivesmuse/my-first-three-mont-working-with-art-sleuth-charley-hill/).

Maurizio Cattelan’s America, a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat solid gold, was recently stolen from Blenheim Palace

The world’s most stolen painting

Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is one of the largest and most important works of the 15th century and has been recognised as such for centuries. During times of turmoil and conflict, the French and Germans have both taken it home as a prize piece for new museums of art: in fact, the painting has – in part or in whole – been stolen 13 different times. (This is many more than the four times Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn has been stolen from the Dulwich Picture Gallery – according to Guinness, the record, but keenly contradicted by The Art Newspaper.) It has been recovered without mystery twelve times, including by the Allied ‘Monuments Men’ who liberated Van Eyck’s masterwork from an Austrian salt mine.

Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) – the most famous painting in the world, which has also became the most stolen

But one of its thefts is more mysterious than these others. In the middle of the night in April 1934, someone broke into St Bavo Cathedral, where the altarpiece is exhibited, and removed a double-sided panel from one of the wings of the polyptych. The only witness said he saw two people leaving the building with a largish object. And why was the witness up and about near the cathedral at 2.00am? Because he was stealing cheese from a shop across the road.

A photo from 1934, taken the morning of the discovery of the theft of the Righteous Judges panel from the altarpiece

The art thief initially sought a ransom of 1 million francs for the safe return of one side of the panel – the other side had been left in deposit at Ghent railway station. Eventually twelve different ransom notes were sent to the bishopric, the final one declaring that the painting was hidden somewhere no one could ever get it without attracting public attention. The ransom was never paid, the painting never returned.

The key suspect was a stockbroker who worked for the bishopric, but he was too blind to see at night so could not have done much more than orchestrate the theft. After the suspect’s death, his lawyer found the carbon copy of the ransom notes in a hidden compartment of the stockbroker’s desk – but nothing to indicate where the missing panel could be found.

There are various theories – in fact dozens more come in each year, as if it were a convention of the Belgian Da Vinci Code. Among the more infamous hunters for the missing painting was Joseph Goebbels, who wanted to give it to the art-loving Fuhrer as a birthday present. Through Hermann Goering, Hitler had already received the other 11 panels, so Goebbels sent his personal art detective to Ghent to find the missing piece. But he doesn’t seem to have found much. At one point more recently, the city of Ghent even started digging up a public square in the middle of town on the basis of a new theory. Still no painting, though.

Nevertheless, when we see the altarpiece today it looks complete. Shortly before the theft, the work had been extensively photographed as part of its conservation plan and so, to give that sense of completeness, a restorer from Brussels’ Museum of Fine Arts was commissioned to make a replica of the missing panel. Van der Verken, the restorer, did an excellent job and today you wouldn’t know you were looking at a replica unless you were told in advance. Recent research into the paintings Van der Verken sold to Hermann Goering in the 1940s reveals that the restorer was also an exceptional forger.

Closed view, back panels of The Ghent Altarpiece

Belgium’s had a more recent thief on the loose, however. This suspect, as reported by Interpol, is “aged between 17 and 20, wearing dark clothing and carrying a backpack.” He’s the chief suspect in the theft of a painting, the Madonna del Silenzio – attributed to Venusti, a student of Michelangelo – from the sacristy of the church of St Ludgerus in Zele on 10 January 2019. The precise description of the suspect makes him or her so easy to distinguish from thousands of other teenagers.

00 Sweden

Sweden isn’t a country we usually associate with crime (unless we’re keen consumers of Nordic Noir), but it has been on the receiving end of some audacious heists. In December 2000, a gang of thieves armed with submachine guns walked into the National Museum in Stockholm, held up the guards and took a Rembrandt self-portrait and two Renoirs off the wall. It’s rare for classical bank-robbing tactics to be used in an art heist – but this one gets even more audacious. To distract and divert police from their crime, the thieves remotely detonated two car bombs in Stockholm. The police called to respond to the armed robbery tried to leave their station promptly, but found that their tyres had been slashed, giving the thieves enough time and chaos to get away in a speedboat moored alongside the waterfront museum.

Rembrandt’s small self-portrait on copper, worth at least DKK 250 million, was stolen from the National Museum in Stockholm in an armed robbery in December 2000 and recovered in Copenhagen in 2005

Although the police were effectively distracted and delayed on the day, detectives eventually got a lead. One of the Renoirs turned up in a local drug bust one year later. Police had suspicions that the group behind the theft were highly organised, so they didn’t start to reel in the fishing line immediately. Four years later, some of the group were arrested in a hotel room in Copenhagen, attempting to execute the sale of the Rembrandt self-portrait. In total 10 men were apprehended, including two lawyers who were acting as intermediaries and the ringleader, a Russian man with suspected links to his nation’s oligarchs.

A speedboat might not automatically seem the ideal getaway vehicle in Sweden. But speedboats were still in vogue in 2018, when a group of three unarmed men stole some of the Crown Jewels in broad daylight. The 17th-century crowns and sceptre were held in an alarmed glass cabinet in the sacristy of Strängnäs Cathedral, a short drive from Stockholm. Apparently the men walked in to the church around midday, broke the glass on the cabinet, took the Crown Jewels and rode off on “women’s bicycles” to their boat, which was moored not so far away. Mälaren Lake, across which they sped, is filled with hundreds of tiny islands, making it quite easy to hide. A year later one of the thieves was caught, but the jewels are still nowhere to be found.

Art theft in Sweden frequently involves a speedboat. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art was robbed in 1993 by thieves who bored holes in the roof at night and made off with $52 million dollars’ worth of modern art – including works by Picasso and Braque that were the highlights of the museum’s permanent collection. So smooth was the operation that the thieves didn’t even trip the alarm system, while drilling through the roof and rappelling down and up again with some unwieldy works! The theft wasn’t discovered until the next morning, and the police sent boats to patrol the waters nearby, just in case.

The thieves were caught two years later, trying to sell one of the Picasso’s in Belgium. Six other works have been recovered, but others, such as a Braque still life, remain missing.

This is, unfortunately, only a very small selection of thefts that have been made of major Western artworks. (For a string of thefts of Chinese art and antiquities, you may be interested in reading this article by Alex W. Palmer for GQ. www.gq.com/story/the-great-chinese-art-heist) We put so much value on art that it’s really not surprising that the desire to possess it – even in secret – is equally high.

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.

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