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Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

Five Daring Art Heists

January 12, 2011
by James Sullivan
Elaborate schemes, priceless treasures, black market deals, undercover sting operations, international investigations and unsolved mysteries: the dramatic nature of art theft gives it a remarkable ability to capture the public’s imagination. Read on to learn about some of the most daring and fascinating art heists from the past 100 years.

1: The Swedish National Museum Heist

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The chronology of events that took place in Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 22, 2000, reads more like the script of a Hollywood action film than an account of a true crime.

That morning, masked robbers blocked roads leading to the National Museum with cars, exploding them to create a distraction. To slow any pursuit they scattered tire-shredding spikes across the road. Armed with pistols and a machine gun, the three gangsters entered the museum. The leader held visitors and guards at bay by gunpoint as the others made a beeline for a Rembrandt and two Renoirs, shearing them from the wall with bolt cutters. Once back together, the three dashed from the museum, winding through the peninsula on which it sits, until reaching a waiting speedboat that whisked them away.

Within two weeks of the heist eight men had been arrested in connection with the crime, including a lawyer assigned to negotiate the ransom. Two of the three works have been located in the years since. A sting operation in Copenhagen led to the recovery of Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait” in 2005; the operation is described at length in a piece by Simon Worrall on ReadersDigest.com.

2: Repatriating “Mona Lisa”

On the evening of Sunday Aug. 20, 1911, an employee at the Louvre named Vincenzo Perugia snuck into a closet in the museum before it closed. During the night, he left his hiding place, eluded the guards and snatched the “Mona Lisa,” departing the next morning.

Louvre employees didn’t realize the painting had been stolen until Tuesday, thinking the museum was photographing it. When the news spread, the country shut its borders and the museum dismissed many of its workers.

On Dec. 10, 1913, more than two years after the painting was stolen, Perugia met the antique art dealer Alfredo Geri in Florence. Using a different name, he told Geri he was in possession of the “Mona Lisa,” and said he wanted the painting returned to the country where it was born, as well as 500,000 lire in compensation. Officials at the Uffizi museum confirmed that it was the “Mona Lisa” and Perugia was arrested.

After Italy toured the painting throughout the country, it arrived back at the Louvre on Jan. 4, 1914. Perugia, considered a hero in Italy for his act of patriotism, was sentenced to only a little over a year in prison.

3: The Biggest Art Heist in History

On March 18, 1990, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum became the site of the biggest art theft in history, when two thieves disguised as Boston police officers gained access to the museum, bound the two inexperienced guards, and proceeded to steal 13 paintings and other works of art. Their haul included works by Manet, Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer—selections that baffled museum officials for their obscurity and worth relative to certain other pieces in the collection. 

The total value of these works today is estimated to be more than $300 million, and the case remains unsolved.

On the 15th anniversary of the heist, the Boston Globe’s Stephen Kurkjian published a compelling review of the case to that point, reviewing the facts and detailing promising leads that investigators have followed.

The museum has offered a $5 million reward to anyone who steps forward with information leading to the return of the stolen artworks.

The walls of the Gardner Museum’s Dutch Room are now adorned by empty frames where the Flinck, Vermeer and two Rembrandts once hung, “as an homage to the missing works and a placeholder for their return,” according to museum director Anne Hawley.

4: The Oft-Stolen Scream

One Sunday morning during the summer of 2004, robbers entered the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, brandishing a .357 Magnum and demanding to be shown to the most famous artworks in the building. Within minutes they were pulling away in a black Audi with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “Madonna” in their possession. 

A lengthy investigation eventually led to the conviction of the perpetrators, and ultimately to the recovery of the works, which were slightly damaged. 

The 2004 heist was not the first time Munch’s “The Scream” was stolen. Another version of the painting was lifted in 1994 on the opening day of the Lillehammer Olympics. Two thieves climbed a ladder, smashed through a window, cut the painting from the wall and escaped all in less than a minute, leaving behind a note that read: “thanks for the poor security.” The painting was recovered in 1996 thanks to the efforts of British police and the Getty Museum.

5: Kempton Bunton, an Unlikely Thief

If Thomas Crown—wealthy, dashing, confident and professional—represents one type of art thief, Kempton Bunton embodies the other extreme. A disabled British pensioner and bus driver, Bunton allegedly stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in 1961. When an American art collector moved to buy the painting for nearly $400,000, the British government, responding to public outrage, assembled the necessary funds to buy the painting and keep it on British soil.

Furious by the waste of money, Bunton stole the painting and demanded a ransom in the amount of the painting’s worth, which he intended to use to subsidize TV taxes for the country’s poor.

Bunton slipped into the museum through a bathroom window, nabbed the painting and disappeared. After four years he eventually returned the painting, and then confessed to the crime. Bunton was only found guilty of having stolen the frame, and spent a mere three months in jail.
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