5 Greatest Art Thefts in History

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Author: Cherie Huber

Date: 01/22/2008 10:42 PM EST

Tagged: art thefts, art theft, art heists, stolen art, art heist …

What are the 5 greatest art thefts in history? This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different points of view concerning what constitutes an “art theft.” Many people would argue that some of the best-known works of art in the world were never really stolen at all. The controversy surrounding these pieces of art has been ongoing for years and will probably never be resolved.

The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous example of this. The painting was originally taken from the Louvre in France by an Italian who wanted to return it to Italy. He hid it under his coat and walked out through security without anyone noticing. Today, it is considered one of the most famous pieces of artwork in the world and is on display in a bulletproof glass case at the Louvre. It has become so famous that it has almost transcended its status as an actual piece of artwork and become more of a cultural icon. It’s permanent home is now where millions visit from around the world each year. The Mona Lisa will probably never be considered stolen because it will

I am always interested in art theft and the investigation that follows. This is a great blog from National Geographic on the greatest art heists of all time.

1. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist, 1990

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft ranks as one of the largest art thefts in history. On March 18, 1990 two men dressed as police officers entered the Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces of artwork from the museum. Thieves stole paintings by Rembrandt as well as works by Vermeer, Manet, Degas, Govaert Flinck, along with five sketches. The men took advantage of the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day and no one would be around during the early morning hours to break into the museum. Some believe that the thieves who broke into the museum that night had help from someone on the inside, who knew when security would be lax enough to make such a daring robbery possible. The FBI still has hopes to recover some of the paintings stolen that night but most have been lost forever.

2. Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1990 John F. Kennedy once said “A painting by Van Gogh has never been auctioned for less than a million dollars at auction” referring to his belief

The theft of art has existed since the dawn of civilization. The pyramid of Giza was once robbed in ancient Egypt, and some artworks have been lost forever.

Artwork may be sold on the black market, created for a specific purpose, or stolen for profit. In this case, thieves will normally look for works with little to no security measures in place.

The artwork itself is usually sold on the black market at a very high price. Because the black market is unregulated, buyers are unable to distinguish between original pieces and fakes.

Theft of artwork is a crime against culture and history; hence, governments around the world have taken measures to reduce these crimes. The FBI has created a database called NGI (National Gang Information Center), which tracks details of hundreds of missing pieces of art.

However, despite government intervention, many cases remain unsolved or undetected. These five thefts are among the most famous cases in history:

5) The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist — 13 pieces valued at $500 million USD — March 18-20, 1990 — Boston, Massachusetts

4) The Stockholm museum robbery — 20 pieces valued at 300 million Swedish Kronor — December 2000 — Stockholm, Sweden

3) Gardner Museum heist (again) —

Fortunately for us, art crime is one of the few crimes where the criminals are as interesting as their victims. It’s not just that art theft is an interesting topic in and of itself, but it also makes for a unique view into a fascinating world of heists, secret codes and hidden messages, and cat-and-mouse games between thieves and authorities.**

The fact that most examples of art theft are so dramatic is why they remain with us long after the initial details fade from memory. It might be easy to forget the name of a celebrity or politician involved in some sort of scandal or controversy, particularly if it was something relatively minor, but we’ll never forget the Mona Lisa being stolen from the Louvre. There’s something about this sort of crime that allows us to remember it even better than other sorts of crime and to know more details than we probably care to.

Art is one of the most common targets for art thefts. Stolen art often turns out to be a part of a black market, in which unsuspecting collectors are tricked into buying counterfeit or stolen artwork. [1] In recent years, the FBI has seen a major increase in the number of art thefts across the country.

Speculation as to why this is happening includes the idea that there is a new breed of collector who wants to have only unique pieces. Also, since many pieces have been authenticated, their value has soared and thieves see better opportunities to take advantage of the price increases. [2]

Another theory suggests that there are more opportunities for criminals to cash in on stolen art. The Internet has made it easier for buyers and sellers to connect. This fact makes it easier for thieves to sell their loot online and harder for authorities to track them down. [3]

The increase in art thefts has also been attributed to the increase in class-action lawsuits against museums and private collectors when something goes missing from their collections. [4]

The art market is large and lucrative, with estimates of up to $60 billion per year. The global black market for stolen art may be worth as much as $6 billion a year. Most stolen art falls into the hands of professional criminals, who are also responsible for the bulk of the illegal trade in drugs, weapons, and people.

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