Art theft plays a much more prominent role in the making of art history than some security guards may be willing to admit. Publicity around the two-year hunt for the stolen Mona Lisa helped propel the painting to its modern-day status, whilst many other famous and priceless paintings have had lesser-known eras of missing status. In early 21stC, the American FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) estimated art theft to be worth between $4bn-$6bn a year, making it the third biggest illegal trade behind drugs and arms. INTERPOL’s Cultural Heritage Crimes division hosts a stolen art database compiling police certified information on 52,000 stolen works of art. 

In 1990, the shocking case of the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum Heist, the most expensive heist in art history, brought the subject of modern art theft to international focus. In the early hours of March 18th 1990, two men posing as police officers gained entry to the New York based museum and took just 81 minutes to loot $500 million worth of art. Among the paintings stolen were Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and ‘The Concert’, one of only 34 known paintings by Johannes Vermeer

Professional and amateur detectives alike have been baffled by several aspects of the case, including the burglars’ choice to leave certain, more valuable, paintings as well as stealing two, rather innocuous, items from the collection- including the bust of an eagle from a Napoleonic flag. None of the art stolen in the heist has yet been recovered. 

Art theft and the public fascination around it has been the subject of many blockbuster movies, such as 1995’s ‘Night Watch’ starring Pierce Brosnan, and 2014’s, all-star cast, ‘The Monuments Men’. However, the reality of life as a stolen painting is often a lot less glamorous. In the modern era of art and surveillance technology, stealing, or indeed selling, art is a much more difficult game than the popular ‘theft-by-commission’ trope depicted in James Bond’s Dr No.

So how does art theft pay? Sometimes it doesn’t. In an interview with The Atlantic, Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s art crime team and author of the memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, explains the pitfalls of a career in art theft:

criminals who do these jobs, these heists, are good thieves, but they’re terrible businessmen”. He continues, “they read in the newspaper about the growing value of paintings and the new records that are set every year by Cézannes and Picassos, and then they think that they can get a payday by going out and doing a heist”. 

It is for this reason that many stolen paintings end up sitting in secret locations or being passed around by criminals who feel the heat from police and public investigation. It is within this art theft limbo that many missing masterpieces are thought to be trapped. One such example is the missing Vincent Van Gogh painting, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen”, which was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum near Amsterdam in the early hours of March 30th 2020, whilst the gallery had been closed following Coronavirus restrictions. The thief had been observed via CCTV using a sledgehammer to smash through the front door of the museum before fleeing with two paintings. By strange coincidence, the theft occurred on the would-be 167th birthday of Van Gogh; this fact lead museum director, Jan Rudolph de Lorm, to declare to the gathering press that he had been left “incredibly p*ssed off”. According to the Guardian, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand was able to retrieve two “proof of life” photos of the Van Gogh painting. Brand stated at the time that the photographs had been “circulating in mafia circles”.  In September 2021, a conviction for the theft was made using DNA trace evidence, however the paintings remain missing.

It is also the case that paintings may be stolen for ransom, as in the case of the 2005 theft of Eduado Munch’s ‘The Scream’ from the National Art Museum in Oslo. The thieves initially demanded between £3m and £5m from the Norwegian government, but feeling the pressure said they would settle for £15,000. Soon after, several men were arrested, and the painting was recovered.

Many works of art have also been stolen to make ideological statements. On August 21st 1961, Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen by a retired bus driver. The painting had been bought by the British Government for £140,000 (equivalent to £3,139,281 in 2019) – in order to keep the painting from being sold to an American collector. The thief then sent a ransom note to Reuters, demanding a donation matching the painting’s cost be made to charities concerning the elderly, with a specific interest in free TV licences. The request was declined, and the painting was voluntarily surrendered 4 years later. 

Also within the ideological lane, the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free) sign which hangs above the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp has been the target of theft multiple times, the most recent theft occurring in 2010 by a Swedish Neo-Nazi leader. The sign has since been replaced with a replica for its safety. 

The period in which the art is missing or unaccounted for creates legal and ethical issues in validating its return. In the same interview with The Atlantic, Wittman acknowledges:

What they [art thieves] don’t understand is that the value of art is dependent on three things: authenticity, provenance — the history of the art — and legal title. Those are the things that really do create the value”. 

Stolen works often change hands several times before resurfacing, leaving subsequent possessors in the dark about their provenance. In November 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum co-hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. Delegators from forty-four governments and thirteen non-governmental organizations participated in the conference.  Following the Washington Conference, the Association of Art Museum Directors developed guidelines requiring museums to review the provenance of their art collections, focusing on identifying art stolen by the Nazis. The National Gallery of Art in Washington identified more than 400 European paintings with gaps in their provenance during World War II era.

Between the intrigue of decades-long police investigation and the excitement of Hollywood block-busters, the billion dollar world of art theft can be also strangely underwhelming in many ways. When Maurizio Cattelan’s £4.8m golden toilet, titled “America”, was stolen from Blenheim Palace in 2019, the artist himself hailed the thieves as “great performers”. Art Detective Christopher Marinello takes a more cynical view of the events, in an interview with The Guardian he notes: “They almost certainly did not steal it for its art value. They stole it for its metal value. That leads me to believe it was just common thugs who knew enough about plumbing to remove it.” Art theft truly challenges the limits of the notion that art is a participatory thing. For some masterpieces, art theft proves truly devastating, for others it is simply part of the complex history of our wonderful fascination with the form.

A short list of some of the missing masterpieces:

Jan and Hubert van Eyck
The Just Judges, panel from the altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent. Stolen 1934
Value: unknown

Jan Vermeer
The Concert. Stolen March 17 1990 from Isabella Steward Gardner museum, Boston, US
Value: priceless

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Stolen March 17 1990 from Isabella Steward Gardner museum, Boston, US
Value: priceless

Caspar David Freidrich
Nebelschwaden. Stolen July 28 1994 from a museum in Frankfurt
Value: £1m

J.M.W. Turner
Shade and Darkness – Evening of the Deluge, and Light and Colour – The Morning After the Deluge 1843. Stolen July 28 1994 from an exhibition in Frankfurt
Value: £10m

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)
Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Stolen January 6 1995 from Marquis of Bath’s estate, Wiltshire
Value: £5m

John Constable
Dedham Mill & The Valley Farm. Stolen between August 8 and November 1998 from V&A museum
Value: £1m for the two

Pablo Picasso
Head of a Woman (Dora Maar). Stolen March 1999 from a yacht in Antibes
Value: £4m

Paul Cézanne
Auvers-sur-Oise. Stolen January 1 2000 from Ashmolean museum, Oxford
Value: £3m

Vincent van Gogh
Le Saule (The Willow Tree). Stolen May 1999 from a bank in Holland
Value: £5m.

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