Following the sad case of the Barbara Hepworth that was stolen from Dulwich Park and taken to a scrapyard in December, I’m looking at some of the more interesting art thefts that have occurred over the decades.
Perhaps the most notorious art theft in recent history was a simple ploy involving the ultimate in iconic artworks. On August 21, 1911, Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia stuck the Mona Lisa under his coat and simply walked out of the main door with the painting in tow. It took police two years to catch him (he tried to sell the piece at an Italian museum), and it turned out that his motivation had simply been to return the painting to its (and his) Italian homeland.
Let’s take a look at Jan Van Eyck’s remarkable Ghent Alterpice, a painting that has seen more action than a nun at a wimple convention. The exact details of its theft in 1934 remain shrouded in mystery. It’s been subject to thirteen different crimes over 600 years, and coveted by such famous names as Napoleon, Hitler, and Göring. The Nazis wanted it to be the centerpiece of Hitler’s planned “Supermuseum” at Linz.
In April 1934, two of the alterpeice’s panels were stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. The Cathedral received a ransom letter, and one of the panels was returned a month after the theft. The 2nd missing panel (the panel of just judges) has been missing ever since, and its whereabouts and the motive for the theft remain one of Europe’s biggest art mysteries. There are even rumours that members of the cathedral were involved in the theft and ransom. A replacement copy of the missing panel sits in its place.
With worldwide unrest, war and disorder, the 1940s saw a lot of art theft. The Nazis plundered tens of thousands of artworks with various motives, including for display in their gallery of “Degenerate Art” and the planned “Supermusem”. So man works were stolen that the Jeu de Paume Art Museum in occipied Paris was used as a central storage and sorting depot for stolen artworks from museums and private art collections throughout France, before they were distributed to various persons and places in Germany. The Nazis also confiscated several thousand artworks from Jewish owners, and after the war, via various channels, many ended up in the hands of respectable collectors and institutions.
The 1950s saw a remarkable lack of big art heists, while from the 1960s onward the trend picked up again.
We’ll begin in 1961, when Kempton Button, a retired bus driver claiming a small pension, stole Goya’s The Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. He was so disgusted that the US government had forked out $392,000 to keep it in the National and out of the hands of a US oil tycoon, that he stole the piece in protest. His condition for returning the portrait was that the sale price be spent on television licenses for poor people. Sadly he didin’t get his wish, and eventually gave himself up, incurring a three-month prison sentence.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was the site of the largest art theft in Canadian history on September 4, 1972, when armed intruders took with figurines, jewellery and 18 paintings worth a total of $2 million. The paintings included works by Gainsborough and Delacroix, along with a rare Rembrandt landscape. Amazingly, these great pieces have never been found. In 2003, the Globe and Mail newspaper estimated that the Rembrandt alone would be worth $1 million in contemporary currency.
On 28 October 1985, during daylight hours, five masked and armed gunmen entered the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris and stole nine paintings from the gallery’s collection. Among them were Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant) by Claude Monet, a pivotal painting which was arguably a springboard for the impressionist movement as a whole. Also stolen were further paintings by Monet, along with works by Renoir and Berthe Morisot, valued at at total of $12 million.The paintings were later recovered in Corsica in 1990.
1994 saw the theft of another painting with pop-culture icon status – that is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. On August 22, during daylight hours, masked gunmen stole two paintings from the Munch Museum in Oslo : Scream and Munch’s Madonna. On April 8, 2005, Norwegian police arrested a suspect in connection with the theft, but the paintings were still at large, and the rumour was that the thieves es had burned them to destroy the evidence. In early 2006, three men were convicted of the theft and sentenced to between four and eight years in prison. The paintings were recovered, in a somewhat water-damaged condition.
Near-universal surveillance, tracking technology and records searchable at the click of a mouse haven’t deterred some of the greatest art thieves. In fact, many of the most audacious thefts have occurred only in the last decade.
On December 15, 2005, thieves took Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure 1969–70, from the Henry Moore foundation at Perry Green. Unlike the small matter of slipping a painting under a coat, pinching this piece involved some serious forward planning, and the perpetrators are believed to have lifted the 3.6 m long, 2 m high by 2 m wide, 2.1-tonne statue onto the back of a Mercedes lorry using a crane. Tragically, the sculpture was sold for scrap for around £1500 and melted down. Intact, it had been worth £3m