Art theft

From Academic Kids

Art theft is the stealing of someone else's high-profile art. This is usually done for the purpose of resale.

Missing image
Masked thieves carrying paintings


Individual theft

However, because the ownership of high profile art is easily tracked, potential buyers are very hard to find. Typically, a thief will steal a work, only to find out that there are no buyers. For the same reason, the stolen piece cannot be put on display publicly, which essentially defeats the purpose of having it. Most art is resold at auction houses; major reputable houses such as Sotheby's or Christie's demand proof of art ownership before listing. Many lost art pieces that become found and sold at auction have later been exposed as forgery or imitation.

A likely scenario in famous art theft is "theft for hire" or similar situations in which buyers have already been found. Some buyers may enjoy possessing famous art secretly. Fossil theft is an easier form of purchase as identification techniques are not as well established as art theft.

Famous cases of art theft

The Mona Lisa (1911)

Perhaps the most famous case of art theft occurred in 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen out of the Louvre. It would be two years before it was recovered. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be "burnt down", was arrested and put in jail on suspicion of theft. His friend Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning, but both were later released.

Panels from the Ghent Altarpiece (1934)

Two panels of the fifteenth century Ghent Altarpiece, painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck were stolen in 1934, of which only one was recovered shortly after the theft. The other one (lower left of the opened altarpiece, known as De Rechtvaardige Rechters i.e. The Just Judges), has never been recovered, as the presumable thief (Arsène Goedertier), who had sent some anonymous letters asking for ransom, died before revealing the whereabouts of the painting. Going on search for, and unraveling clues about, the stolen panel is still a popular sport in Belgium.

Last Judgment triptych by Memling (1473)

Another highlight of flemish primitive painting was stolen several centuries earlier: Hans Memling's Last Judgment altarpiece was commissioned in 1467, and was to become the central art piece in a de'Medici chapel in Florence. The ship transporting the painting in 1473 was looted by a "pious" pirate, offering the painting to the Gdansk cathedral. Although authenticity is undoubted, the story plainly documented, and the now priceless painting one of Memling's greatest masterpieces, some catalogues of the painter's work scarcely mention it. Negotiations with the city of Gdansk to restore the theft keep failing. Nonetheless, the triptych was temporarily shown at a Memling exhibition in Bruges, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the painter's death. The case is famous while it allotted the receivers of the stolen goods as well the profit of owning the art work, the profit of not needing to make any expense for hiding its whereabouts, and the profit of copyright-like earnings (e.g. when lending it for expositions or photography), over an extended period.

The Gardner Museum (1990)

The largest art theft in U.S. history occurred in Boston on March 18, 1990 when thieves stole 12 paintings, collectively worth $100 million, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. As of 2005 these paintings have not been recovered.

Stephane Breitwieser - The "Art Collector" (~2001)

Edvard Munch works (1994, 2004, and 2005)

In 1994, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, and held for ransom. It was recovered later in the year.

On 22 August 2004, another original of The Scream, together with Munch's Madonna, was stolen (note that Munch painted several versions of The Scream). This time the thieves targeted the version held by the Munch Museum, from where the two paintings were stolen at gunpoint and during opening hours.

On 6 March 2005, three more Munch paintings were stolen from a hotel in Norway, including Blue Dress, and were recovered the next day. [1] (

Theft during the Holocaust

During the Holocaust, the Nazis confiscated tens of thousands of works from their legitimate Jewish owners. Some were sold by the Nazis, while many others were confiscated by the Allies at the end of the war. Many ended up in the hands of respectable collectors and institutions.

Jewish ownership of the art was codified into the Geneva conventions.


The Art Loss Register (ALR) was formed in 1991 in London by a partnership of leading international auction houses and art trade associations, the insurance industry, and the International Foundation for Art Research. Its shareholders include Christie's, Sotheby's, Bonhams, Phillips, de Pury and Luxembourg, and others. It is the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques dedicated to their recovery.

The portrayal of art theft in popular media

Fictional art thefts are often portrayed in the media as glamorous and exciting. These are often in the category of crime fiction or caper story.


There is a niche of the mystery genre that is devoted to art theft and forgery.

  • Author Iain Pears has a series of novels known as the Art History Mysteries, each of which follows a fictional shady dealing in the art history world
  • St. Agatha's Breast by T. C. Van Adler follows an order of monks attempting to track the theft of an early Poussin work
  • Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle
  • The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa by Robert Noah is a historical fiction speculating as to the actual motivations behind the actual theft


There is some overlap with the crime genre of film, but usually feature complicated heist plots and visually exciting getaway scenes. In many of these movies, the stolen art piece is a MacGuffin.

  • In the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, the title character is a stylish, debonair playboy who steals art for amusement rather than for the money. The 1967 Thomas Crown arranges the theft of cash from banks, not art.
  • Once a Thief (1991), directed by John Woo, follows a trio of art-thieves in Hong Kong who stumble across a valuable cursed painting.
  • In Two if by Sea (1996), the main characters are attempting to unload a valuable painting and lead a normal life.
  • In Entrapment (1999), an insurance agent is persuaded to join the world of art theft by an aging master thief.
  • Ocean's Twelve (2004) involves a competition to steal a Faberge egg

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