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Art heists are a thing. When a famous painting is stolen, parent museums often hang the empty frame of that painting, or leave the space intentionally blank with four iron pegs jutting out of the wall.
The fact that paintings are stolen and their absence is so dearly felt by museums and art enthusiasts everywhere only points to the enormous power of art. But other than that, there’s also the fact that paintings worth stealing can sell for unimaginably large sums of money on the black market.
The networth of a painting is often attributed to its beauty and mastery of its painter. But it also has a lot to do with its age, the socio-cultural conditions from which it was born, the number of people who interacted with the painting and the stature of the artist themselves.
In this article, The Artment takes a look at famous paintings that were stolen from prominent museums around the world. Some were found, some were returned and some remain lost.
The Mona Lisa may be the most famous painting in the world, but in 1911, it was the most famous painting to have ever been stolen. Da Vinci’s mysterious Mona Lisa was snached from The Louvre, Paris in 1911 by one of the museum’s own employees. Vincenzo Peruggia hid in a storage closet until the museum closed for the day.
He lurked out in the dark and stole The Mona Lisa only to leave four iron screws still protruding from the wall - where the painting used to be hung. For three years, the space remained blank and museum goers stared at a blank wall where The Mona Lisa sat. In 1914, Peruggio was found and the painting was recovered.
The Spanish master painter Pablo Picasso’s painting titled The Pigeon with Green Peas was mysteriously taken from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 2010 along with four other paintings by different artists. The five stolen paintings were estimated to be worth €100 million!
What’s even more interesting is that at the scene of the crime, the authorities found nothing more than one shattered glass window and a broken padlock, indicating that all five paintings were stolen by one person and not a gang of thieves. In 2011, a man who claimed to have thrown the paintings in the garbage was convicted for the robbery but his story is rumoured to be false. The Pigeon with Green Peas is lost to this day.
This may just be one of the most disturbing art thefts of all time for true art lovers. The expressionist painter Henri Matisse’s thoughtful depiction of a woman reading a book by a table decorated with flowers was stolen from a museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The robbery was staged as a heist by several burglars who apparently entered the museum through an emergency exit and stole a number of artworks, all in under two minutes! Following their arrest, the mother of one of the thieves felt frightened by her son’s misdoing and buried the paintings outside a village cemetery. Later, she burned them alive in her kitchen oven.
Vermeer’s intimate 1664 painting about a man and two women listening to music in their chambers is estimatedly the most valued and expensive painting to have ever been stolen - it’s worth is pegged at $200 million. In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was targeted for a major art heist. A group of thieves disguised themselves as the Boston police and barged into the museum, stealing a total of 13 paintings including Vermeer’s. The Concert has not been recovered yet, but this was not the first time it went missing. In 1696, the painting was sold in Amsterdam. It remained out of the public eye and under the radar for almost two centuries until it was bought by Isabella Stewart Gardener and displayed at the eponymous museum, only to be stolen all over again.
There is so much We don't know about Van Gogh. For example, did you know that his painting Poppy Flowers was subjected to attempted stealing not one, but two times? In 2010, the painting was taken from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
Poppy Flowers may be a small painting in size (just about 65 x 54 centimetres) but its estimated value is over $50 million. No wonder it was targeted by thieves. But art heists have a lot to do with the artist’s stature in the art world, as well as the story behind the artword. Van Gogh is a king in the world of art and it is rumoured that he painted Poppy Flowers as an ode to Adolphe Monticelli, one of his contemporaries.
Before 2010, the painting had been stolen and lost for ten whole years between 1977 and 1987. Thanks to an extensive search operation, it was found in Kuwait and returned to the Cairo museum. But the 2010 operation has not yielded the same results.
Apparently, a few hours after the 2010 robbery, officials spotted a few people trying to cart away the painting at the Cairo International Airport, but this was a false alarm. The painting has not been recovered yet and investigations are still ongoing.