We’ve seen this label many times. It is a standard phrase the media likes to use whenever it needs to describe a notorious crime because it makes a good headline that immediately grabs your attention. Sometimes, this label isn’t entirely warranted since, technically, only one crime per century would genuinely be deserving of the status of “theft of the century”. But looking past its literal meaning, there have been quite a few audacious heists worthy of the moniker.
1. Stealing the Mona Lisa, 1911
If there is one art theft truly deserving to be labeled the “theft of the century”, it should be the theft of the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, located in the famous Louvre Museum in Paris. Well, actually, we now consider the Mona Lisa to be extremely significant, but this wasn’t always the case. It’s not like da Vinci just finished painting it and immediately it became the phenomenon it is today. The painting built a reputation over centuries and this theft had a lot to do with it. Up until that point, the Mona Lisa was barely known outside the art world, but this theft attracted worldwide media attention and ensured the painting’s immortality even if it was never recovered again.
And, actually, for a while it really looked like that would be the case. It would take two years before the painting would be recovered. Now you’re probably imagining that the culprit was some sort of sophisticated millionaire playboy who enjoys stealing priceless art as a hobby and, if this were Hollywood, that would probably have been the case. Instead, the thief actually was Vincenzo Peruggia, a man who worked for the museum. One day, he simply stayed after closing time by hiding in a closet, took the painting, hid it under his coat and simply walked out of the museum. Ok, so this was 1911, security was a tad looser. It’s doubtful the same technique would work today.
Peruggia kept the painting at his home for two years. Finally, he tried to sell it to an Italian museum and was immediately caught. His reason for the crime was a patriotic one – being one of the most prominent Italian masterpieces, the Mona Lisa belonged in Italy, not France. Others, however, pointed out that if patriotism was truly his motivation, Peruggia should have donated the painting instead of attempting to sell it. Whatever his motivation might have been, the courts were swayed by the man and Peruggia only spent six months in jail for the “theft of the century”. His actions also ensured that his beloved Mona Lisa would become more famous than he could even imagine.
2. America’s Greatest Art Heist, 1990
Not many people have heard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It’s not very big, but, at one point, it hosted a large number of priceless art works. Basically, Mrs. Gardner was an incredibly rich socialite who spent her life collecting fine art and left everything to this museum after she died. The place still has a lot of valuable works, but the collection was reduced considerably in 1990 where a pair of thieves pulled off the biggest heist in U.S. history.
Again, it wasn’t anything fancy Hollywood-style. The two men dressed as cops to gain entry, tied up the security personnel and made off with 13 works of art. They did it on St. Patrick’s Day so many people were preoccupied with the celebration. Among the stolen paintings was a Rembrandt masterpiece, several sketches by Degas and The Concert by Vermeer, currently estimated to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting in the world. It alone is worth roughly $200 million while the entire collection is estimated at $500 million. So keep an eye out for them…
3. The Bührle Collection, 2008
Ok, so we’re cheating a bit with this one. But the 21st century is still young. There’s plenty of time for many more thefts to occur that might be worthy of the “theft of the century” title but, so far, this one is a pretty strong contender. Probably the only reason why it didn’t gain as much notoriety is because it happened in Zurich and the stolen art was recovered. Like the museum in Boston, the Foundation E.G. Bührle was created in order to showcase to the public a private collection that once belonged to Emil Georg Bührle.
Again, no Hollywood-style daring caper here. Three masked men entered the museum (which really is just a mansion repurposed as a museum), grabbed four paintings off the walls and drove off. Even so, they targeted four masterpieces: a van Gogh, a Cezanne, a Monet and a Degas, worth $162 million. Fortunately, all four paintings were eventually recovered with little to no damage.
4. Stealing the Scream, 2004
The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is one of the most famous paintings in the world so, naturally, it has been the target of more than one thievery attempts. Actually, the name refers to a collection of four different versions of the same painting, some done in oil, others in tempera and pastel. The pastel-on-board version is the most valuable, selling at auction in 2012 for $120 million.
Anyway, back to the theft. It took place in 2004 at the Munch Museum in Oslo. The thieves made off with one version of The Scream plus another one of Munch’s works, Madonna. Two years later, the paintings were recovered in relatively good condition and six men had been arrested in connection with the theft.
5. The Van Gogh Collection, 1991
By now it looks like no real art theft is really like in the movies. Well, don’t go away disappointed because we’ve found one. In 1991, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam saw one of the most audacious heists ever. Two well-armed men wearing masks stormed the museum and neutralized security measures with the help of accomplices posing as inside men. They then spent 45 minutes browsing through the collection, picking the most valuable pieces from the famed artist. They eventually left with 20 works of art, all of them by van Gogh.
So, 20 paintings by one of the most famous artists in history. Surely, this has to go down as one of, if not the greatest “theft of the century”. There’s just one problem, though. All the paintings were recovered just 35 minutes later. For some reason, the robbers had left all of their stolen masterpieces in their getaway car which they abandoned at a nearby railroad station. Four men were eventually caught and convicted in relation to the robbery.