In Hollywood movies, the art thief has become something of a romantic legend. But away from the big screen, art looting is big and ugly business.
From Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the “Mona Lisa” in 1911, through to Adam Worth, the master criminal thought to be the inspiration behind the character Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Tales of Sherlock Holmes,” art thieves have been pursued across the world by police and detectives.
‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’
Joe Hay, security guard at the National Gallery of Scotland, stands beside the Leonardo da Vinci painting “Madonna of the Yarnwinder.” Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Back in 2003, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna with the Yarnwinder” was stolen from the Duke of Buccleuch’s home in Scotland. One of the very few surviving works by the Italian master, the painting was recovered in 2007 a month after the duke’s death.
Daring heist of four masterpieces
Lukas Gloor, president of the Buehrle Foundation museum, and Zurich police hold a news conference in 2008 after two of the four stolen paintings were retrieved Credit: AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
In 2008, four masterpieces — by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet — were stolen by masked raiders at the Buehrle Foundation museum in Switzerland.
The artworks, “Poppies near Vetheuil” by Monet, “Count Lepic and his Daughters” by Degas, “Blossoming Chestnut Branch” by Van Gogh and Cézanne’s “Boy in a Red Waistcoat” were estimated to be worth a combined $163 million at the time.
Police recovered the works by Monet and Van Gogh a short time later. The Degas was retrieved with slight damage in 2012, and the Cézanne was found in Serbia in the same year.
‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington’
Experts discuss the condition of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington Credit: Douglas Miller/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Francisco Goya’s painting, “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” was stolen in 1961 and was missing for four years. A retired bus driver, Kempton Bunton, later confessed to the crime and was jailed for three months. The painting was recovered.
“I climbed over the wall, still holding the picture in one hand … I put the picture on the back seat of the car and drove back to (my furnished room in) Grafton Street. I then put the picture under my bed.”
The shipper had listed the item as a $37 piece of art being sent to the United States as a Christmas present. But it was actually the stolen Picasso, which had been missing for more than a decade and is worth millions of dollars.
‘Landscape on the Banks of the Seine’
A Renoir painting from 1879 was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951. It remained missing for decades but eventually showed up at a flea market in 2010.
The estimated value at the time of its recovery was between $75,000 and $100,000.
Kunsthal Museum heist
“Charing Cross Bridge, London” (1901) by Claude Monet was one of seven masterpieces taken in 2012. Credit: Courtesy Interpol
The other paintings, in oil and watercolor, were Picasso’s “Harlequin Head,” Henri Matisse’s “Reading Girl in White and Yellow,” Lucian Freud’s “Woman with Eyes Closed,” Paul Gauguin’s “Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, dite la Fiancee” and Meyer de Haan’s “Autoportrait.”
The Nazis plundered countless precious paintings during World War II. Here are just three examples:
It belonged Alfred Weinberger, a prominent art collector in prewar Paris. It was returned to his last surviving heir, granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer, in September 2018.
“The Scream” was one of two Edvard Munch paintings that were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in 2004. Credit: REUTERS/Handout /Landov
“I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
More than a century ago, “Mona Lisa” was taken from the Louvre in Paris and hidden away for a couple of years. Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Public fascination with the theft helped cement the painting’s place in popular culture ever since.