Tricks and Tips from the Greatest Art Thiefs

When it comes to art heists, we think it’s all fast-paced James Bond narratives and Hollywood silver foxes heroically stealing back from the Nazis. But did you know that art heists actually go down on the regular, outside of the petite art gallery? And what’s more, even without the big screen glamour, some of them are badass as hell.

In fact, the F.B.I. estimates that the overall losses to art and cultural property crime sit at $6 billion each year.

The Tactical One

In an act that sounds like it belongs in a star-studded Hollywood flick, the National Museum of Sweden saw some serious action on 22 December 2000.

Whilst three men headed into the museum, their cohorts set off car bombs at opposite ends of town, causing local police to scatter. Then, one of the men pulled out a machine gun whilst the remaining two located their targeted paintings. Within thirty minutes the thieves had fled the scene with two Renoirs and a Rembrandt self-portrait in tow - that’s about $30 million worth of art. And if the car bombs and machine gun weren’t Ocean’s Eleven enough, their audacious choice of getaway was via speedboat.

Less than two weeks later, all ten men - one of whom was a lawyer - were arrested and subsequently convicted. The paintings weren’t recovered until several years later.

The Unsolved One

Around 1.30am on 18 March 1990, two men posing as policemen knocked on the door of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston to check out a reported disturbance. Within minutes of being granted access, the two men handcuffed the guards on duty, and threw them into the basement, where they were duct-taped to pipes. The perps were then able to spend an hour looting thirteen works of art including three Rembrandt paintings, five Degas sketches, and a bronze eagle that had topped a framed banner from the era of Napoleon. That’s a whopping total of around $500 million worth of goods. Do you think we can find these artworks online?!?! We wonder.

To this day, the mysterious thieves are still at large and none of the works have ever been recovered. However, footage was said to be uncovered last year, which opened up new lines of investigation concerning the involvement of the museum guards.

Whilst the Isabella Gardner Museum has a $5 million reward standing, the Boston DA has promised not to prosecute whoever returns the works. Empty frames still hang in the museum as harsh evidence of one of the biggest art crimes in history.

The Philanthropist

In an unexpected chain of events that led to one of the most notorious crimes of the early 1960s, Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from London’s National Gallery.

Soon after, a series of bizarre ransom notes began to appear, detailing the return of the painting in exchange for it’s value to be given to the needy. After his demands weren’t met, the presumptuously exasperated thief left the painting in a luggage locker at Birmingham New Street Station and anonymously tipped the press. Two months later, retired bus driver, Kempton Bunton walked into a London police station and admitted to the theft. He confessed that the act was in protest of the US government forking out $392,000 to keep the portrait out of a US oil tycoon’s hands.

Thanks to a legal loophole, Bunton was charged only for the theft of the frame and consequently spent merely three months in prison. We think, it’s fair to say the Duke of Wellington certainly would have approved of such gallantry.

The Inside Job

In perhaps the most famous of art heists, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris on 21 August 1911. To get to the piece, Vincenzo Peruggia - a museum handyman who had installed the protective glass over that sly smile - hid in a supply closet overnight. It was 24 hours before the Mona Lisa was noticed missing; but to be honest, this affordable art portrait wasn’t even that big of a deal at the turn of the century. 

The robbery launched the Mona Lisa into a household name; police even considered Pablo Picasso as a suspect at one point. However, Peruggia was caught the moment he tried to sell the painting to a museum in Florence. Once reprimanded, the handyman proclaimed that he was returning the painting to it’s rightful home of Italy. Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, more famous than ever, and Peruggia got off lightly with a one year jail sentence.

And there we have it, from speedboats to disgruntled bus drivers, recent history has proved that it doesn’t take a smooth-talking Hollywood fox or a double zero for a first name to pull off a serious heist. And if anyone should approach you with a suspicious, Napoleon era-looking bronze eagle for sale, we’ll split that $5 mill on the down low. At The Public House of Art, we sell affordable art online and in store so you don’t have to risk your children’s university funds when starting your own art collection.


Written by Amsterdam-based Freelance Writer Robyn Collinge for The Public House of Art.



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