Where there is art, there’s a chance to make money. A lot of money. Art heists have been happening for centuries. But as security technology has become more advanced, stealing art has turned into, well, something of an art. (An illegal art, to be clear.) Here are seven of the most headline-grabbing art heists in recent memory.
The Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
It was 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, when two men in police uniforms buzzed the guard at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, asking to come inside to respond to a report of a disturbance. But when the guard answered the call, he found himself handcuffed, tied up in the basement, and presumably shaking his head at a clever game of deception — the “police” were fake. With the guards muzzled, the thieves made off with more than $500 million worth of art, including works by Vermeer, Manet, Degas, and Rembrandt. More than 30 years later, none of the paintings have been recovered, despite a $10 million reward.
The Skylight Swipe
In 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was doing repairs on one of its skylights, covering the hole with a sheet of plastic. Apparently, somebody noticed. In the dead of night, three ski-masked burglars descended from the open skylight with nylon rope and rappelled down. It wasn’t long before the shotgun-toting men had bound and gagged all of the museum’s unarmed guards. The robbers stole 18 paintings and 39 pieces of jewelry. A week later, a cinematic ransom scene ensued, with suspicious phone calls from men with European accents and enigmatic messages sending investigators into phone booths and train stations in search of clues. Unfortunately, only one piece has been recovered.
The Daylight Robbery
The October 27, 1985 heist at Paris’s Musée Marmottan was more like a bank robbery than a sneaky art theft. Minutes after the museum opened, the armed robbers traipsed inside — two even bought tickets — before flashing their weapons. With the guards held at gunpoint and onlookers spread on the floor, the criminals stuffed reams of art into the trunk of a double-parked car. In total, the crime took only five minutes. The five gunmen made off with five Monets, two Renoirs, and two other artworks in broad daylight. In 1990, the works were discovered on the island of Corsica.
The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England, is home to beautiful paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. But in 2003, three of these artworks — valued around $6 million — went missing. The details of the heist are unclear. But a few days after the gallery went blank, an anonymous tip sent police running to a graffiti-stained public toilet down the road. There, investigators discovered a wet cardboard tube with the three paintings inside. The only trace of the burglar was a handwritten note: “the intention WAS Not to SteaL. ONLY to HIghLight the WOEFUL Security.” Afterward, the press jokingly called the bathroom heist “The Loovre.”