Art Thieves Past and Present
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 1/31/14

The world’s art treasures have proved irresistible to marauders ever since antiquity, when intrepid grave robbers burrowed into royal tombs to loot jewels, statuary and, well, lutes. Whether they are motivated by greed, national pride or the sheer challenge of pulling off near-impossible heists, art thieves continue to thwart highly sophisticated security systems to perpetrate some of the more fascinating crimes of our time.

Parthenon Marbles  (Unknown artists | sculpture | c. 447–432 B.C.)
to  Mona Lisa  (Leonardo da Vinci | painting | c. 1503–1519)

The frieze of the Great Panathenaiac Procession, a signal achievement of Western civilization, stood high above Athens for more than 2,000 years. But in the early 19th century Thomas Bruce, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, shipped almost half its constituent stones to England, where they remain on proud display in the British Museum. Bruce claimed to have permission to remove any stones with inscriptions or figures, ostensibly to ensure the preservation of the magnificent frieze—but he dropped and badly damaged many of these marbles in the process. Today Greece wants the marbles back and has prepared airy galleries in the Acropolis Museum to house them. Britain, meanwhile, is holding firm.

Nationalism can be quite a motivator. On August 21, 1911, Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the museum, ducked into a broom closet, emerged after-hours, lifted Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa out of its frame, concealed it under his coat and disappeared into the dusky Parisian boulevards. Authorities tracked down the painting two years later, when Peruggia attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy—not for personal gain but to return the world’s most famous artwork to the country where it was painted.

Parthenon Marbles  (Unknown artists | sculpture | c. 447–432 B.C.)
to  The Nazis  (German ideological and political party | 1919–1945)

Of all the booty housed in the British Museum, none is so controversial as the Parthenon Marbles, or “Elgin Marbles” after Lord Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. Though Bruce had a sultan’s permission to remove the stones from Athens’s Acropolis, historians agree the lord took liberties.

Adolf Hitler also pursued an agenda of cultural imperialism. Throughout World War II the Nazis looted an estimated 750,000 works of art, ravaging museums and confiscating the collections of their Jewish victims. Much of the plunder was intended for the massive Führermuseum that Hitler envisioned but never realized for his hometown of Linz, Austria. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command, amassed more than 1,700 paintings for his private collection, among them Henri Matisse’s Still Life With Sleeping Woman and Pianist and Checker Players. Vincent van Gogh’s Painter on the Road to Tarascon is one of many stolen works that was later destroyed—either by the Nazis themselves or in an Allied bombing. Art sleuths are still tracking down Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, taken from a private museum in Kraków, Poland, and the Amber Room, a salon crafted entirely from amber and removed panel by panel from Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg.

The Nazis  (German ideological and political party | 1919–1945)
to  Baghdad

When it comes to would-be art thieves, war is an equal-opportunity enabler. During World War II the Nazis stole some 750,000 artworks—but they aren’t the only bad guys on the block. Days after Allied forces took Baghdad, in April 2003, local looters stormed the besieged city’s National Museum. Thieves walked away with about 15,000 treasures from some of civilization’s first centers of culture: an ivory lion from the ancient city of Nimrud; 2,000-year-old statues from the fortified compound of Hatra; a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash; as well as countless cylinder seals, whose impressions served as signatures on documents. Border guards, customs officials and investigators following world art markets have recovered roughly half of the pieces. Still missing, however, are statue heads, clay tablets, beads and coins.

Plunder is likewise stripping Afghanistan of much of its heritage. The trade in stolen Afghan artifacts is estimated to be worth $32 billion—more than the opium racket. As Abdul Feroozi, head of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Archaeology, said, “The problem of this looting is like all the problems of Afghanistan; it’s another bead in the necklace. To stop it, you must…break the power of the warlords.”

Mona Lisa  (Leonardo da Vinci | painting | c. 1503–1519)
to  Edvard Munch  (Norwegian painter | 1863–1944)

When Italian patriot Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa tucked under his coat in 1911, public museums were a relatively new institution. Since then, museums and galleries have become commonplace—as has theft of the works they house. Boston’s charming Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the scene of one of the world’s great unsolved art heists on the night after the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two thieves dressed as police officers subdued security guards and helped themselves to paintings estimated to total $500 million, including a Manet, three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. Fortunately, the perpetrators had distinct tastes: They left behind paintings by Titian, Raphael and Fra Angelico. So much for the Renaissance!

The works of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch have been especially tempting to thieves in recent years. In 1994 four men stole a version of The Scream, Munch’s 1893 expressionist masterpiece of despair, from the National Gallery in Oslo. In 2004 masked art rustlers held museumgoers at gunpoint and ripped another version of The Scream from its frame in Oslo’s Munch Museum. The Screams have since been recovered, but curators the world over despair of the next master heist.

Mona Lisa  (Leonardo da Vinci | painting | c. 1503–1519)
to  The Thomas Crown Affair  (John McTiernan (dir.) | film | 1999)

The $6 billion-a-year criminal underworld trafficking in stolen art is intricate, gritty and, with an added touch of glamour, the perfect setting for Hollywood capers. In Topkapi (1964) an emerald-encrusted sword of Sultan Mahmud I captures the eye of Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri), who recruits a gang of eccentrics to steal the treasure from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. How to Steal a Million (1966) has a Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn filching a fake Cellini. And in Ocean’s Twelve (2004) a Fabergé egg bedazzles a celebrity cast.

Though the incredible story of Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia’s walking out with da Vinci’s masterpiece was made into The Theft of the Mona Lisa (1931), the greatest art heist picture is arguably The Thomas Crown Affair. Crown, a wealthy but bored banker played by Pierce Brosnan, orchestrates the elaborate theft of Claude Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brosnan and Rene Russo, who plays the foxy sleuth, both shine, but the real star is the painting. Awash in sumptuous hues of gold and rose, Monet’s canvas is much more tempting than the $2.6 million in cash that entices Steve McQueen in the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair original.