Art theft: stealing the priceless


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Art theft: stealing the priceless

Art theft is one of the most lucrative crimes worldwidei. Yet despite what we see at the movies, most art heists don't involve cunning cat burglars or crafty conmen. We take a look at a few of the more remarkable art thefts over the years.

Although relatively few make international headlines, hundreds of thousands of art thefts are reported worldwide each yeari. That said, some art crimes are more notable than others, either for the way the artworks are stolen, the sheer size of their value or the motives behind the theft. We take a look at some of the most daring art heists around the world in recent times.

Lax security

Rather than relying on elaborate heist plans and exceptional stealth, several art thieves have simply taken advantage of insufficient security in some museums and galleries.

Hundreds of thousands of art thefts are reported each year.

On the 20th of May 2010, a lone thief managed to break Paris' National Museum of Modern Art's gate padlock, smash a window and steal five masterpieces at night without detectionii. So how did the thief not trigger the alarm system and alert the security guards? Officials confirmed the museum's alarm system had not been functioning properly for weeksiii. The works by Matisse, Modigliani, Léger, Braque and Picasso were valued together at an estimated $120 million (USD) in 2010ii.

Lax security was to blame again in 2010, when the Vincent van Gogh artwork "Poppy Flowers", worth an estimated $55 million (USD), was stolen from a museum in Cairoiv. It was revealed that only seven of the forty-three security cameras in the museum were working at the time, which was part of the reason that the thieves were never caughtv.

Exposing the inadequacy of security was allegedly the motive behind the 2003 heist at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchesteriii. Three artworks by van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso, were stolen when thieves managed to force open the backdoors of the gallery and take the artworks, successfully evading the room's two security camerasvi. Luckily, the three paintings, valued collectively at about £4million, were found early the next day in a public toilet just 200m from the galleryvi with a note that read, "The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security"iii.

Armed robberies

Rather than use stealth and skill, many perpetrators of art crime use violence to steal priceless works of art. This occurred in the brazen 2004 theft of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and "Madonna" from the Munch Museum in Oslo, shocking art lovers around the worldvii. After the gunmen demanded to be taken to the two most famous paintings in the museum, they carelessly ripped the precious artworks from the wall and made a run for itvii. After a two-year search, the stolen artworks were eventually recovered, but had suffered significant damagevii.

Four years later in Zurich, another scandalous robbery stunned the art world when three men in ski masks stole four artworks valued together at around $163 million (USD)vii. The four paintings were late 19th century masterpieces by Monet, van Gogh, Cézanne and Degasviii. Fortunately, all four paintings were recovered; Cézanne's "Boy in the Red Vest" was the last to be found in Serbia in 2012ix.

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence where the Mona Lisa was temporarily displayed before being returned to the Louvre in Paris.

Grand getaways

In a heist worthy of Hollywood, this art theft had diversions, explosions, a getaway vehicle and a ransom. Three masked men held up the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm, stealing paintings by Rembrandt and Renoir before making a quick escape in a motor boat, which was parked in front of the waterfront museumx. While this was going on, two cars exploded in other parts of the city as part of a diversion that the criminals had set up beforehand in order to distract policexi. A few days later the thieves demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom, which was not paidxi. Eight men were arrested a few weeks later for what has been described as one of the most audacious art thefts in Sweden's historyx. Only one of the masterpieces - none of which were insuredx - was recovered in a drug raidxi.

Armed men were behind the 2006 robbery of the Chacara do Ceu gallery in Brazil, a heist that used the annual Carnival festivities as the perfect getaway coverxii. As millions of Brazilians celebrated Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, gun-wielding thieves forced the gallery's staff to disable the alarm and surveillance systems before taking some of the museum's most significant artworks and escaping into the crowded streetsxii. The stolen works, valued collectively at an estimated $20 million (USD)xii, were Monet's "Marine", Matisse's "Garden of Luxembourg", Dalí's "Two Balconies", and Picasso's "The Dance" and "Toros". Sadly, none have been recovered yet.

Easy exit

Perhaps the most legendary art heist is the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvrexiii. The theft caused a public uproar, with many art lovers flocking to the room where the Mona Lisa was usually displayed and gazing at the empty space on the wall in griefxiii. The masterpiece disappeared without a trace for over two years, and was only unearthed in December 1913 when a former worker at the Louvre, Vincenzo Perugia, was arrested trying to sell it to an art dealer in Florence, Italyxiii. Perugia, an Italian, claimed that he had stolen the priceless painting not to profit from its sale but in a bid to return it to its rightful place in his homelandxiii. The Mona Lisa's famous smile was temporarily displayed in its country of origin at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence before it was returned to the Louvrexiii.

Even though the artworks you have at home might not be Renaissance masterpieces or iconic canvases, their sentimental value alone makes them precious. Home and contents insurance can protect your much-loved artwork against theft or damage and provide financial compensation for your loss. Get a quote with Allianz today.


i Federal Bureau of Intelligence 2012, Protecting Cultural Heritage from Art Theft, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march-2012/protecting-cultural-heritage-from-art-theft

ii Iverson, JT 2010, 'A French art heist: who would steal unsaleable Picassos?', Time, 20 May, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1990921,00.html

iii The Telegraph 2013, Art theft: some of the famous art heists of the last 100 years, viewed 20 September 2013,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8702071/Art-theft-some-of-the-famous-art-heists-of-the-last-100-years.html?image=6

iv Shahine, A 2010, 'Van Gogh $55 million 'Poppy Flowers' Theft in Cairo Blamed on Lax Security', Bloomberg, 22 August, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-22/van-gogh-55-million-poppy-flowers-theft-in-cairo-blamed-on-lax-security.html

v 'Egypt Culture Chief, Farouk Hosni, Sleepless Over Van Gogh Theft' 2010, Art Daily, 24 August, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://artdaily.com/news/40172/Egypt-Culture-Chief--Farouk-Hosni---Sleepless-Over-Van-Gogh-Theft#.Ui6fjc1_6Lk

vi Ward, D 2003, 'Whitworth's stolen masterpieces endure a rainy night in the Loovre', The Guardian, 29 April, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/apr/29/arts.education

vii Jones, J 2007, 'The bigger picture', The Guardian, 17 February, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2007/feb/17/art.arttheft

viii Harnischfeger, U & Kulish, N 2008, 'At Zurich Museum, a Theft of 4 Masterworks', The New York Times, 12 February, viewed 10 September 2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/world/europe/12swiss.html?_r=1&

ix 'Stolen Dégas recovered damaged' 2012, swissinfo, 27 April, viewed 10 September,
http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/culture/Stolen_Degas_recovered_damaged.html?cid=32566670

x 'More arrests over Swedish art theft' 2001, BBC News, 7 January, viewed 16 September 2013,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1105660.stm

xi Bell, R 2013, 'Sensational Art Heists', Crime Library: Criminal minds and methods, viewed 16 September 2013,
http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/gangsters_outlaws/outlaws/major_art_thefts/2.html

xii 'Brazil Art Heist is Cloaked by Carnival' 2006, The New York Times, February 26, viewed 16 September,
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/international/americas/26brazil.html?_r=0

xiii Hunt, E 2012, 'Mona Lisa theft in 1911 was one of the world's greatest art heists of all time', Herald Sun, 19 November, viewed 16 September 2013,
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/mona-lisa-theft-in-1911-was-one-of-the-worlds-greatest-art-heists-of-all-time/story-fnat7dag-1226518112774#