Masterpieces of art have always attracted people’s attention, forgers and thieves in particular. And some robbers have even managed to make away with priceless paintings, some of which are yet to be recovered. Investigations can sometimes take years and even decades to ensure the return of art history’s treasures. KAZoART takes a closer look at the artworld’s five greatest thefts.

Artworld thefts: Our top five

#1 The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci

It was in 1911 that artist Louis Béroud suddenly exclaimed, “They’ve stolen the Mona Lisa”. Shock swept through the room at the Louvre. And rightly so, as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa had always attracted both its critics and a crowd. A large-scale investigation was launched to find the guilty party. Expert criminologist Alphonse Bertillon managed to find a fingerprint on the glass designed to protect the painting. The museum’s staff were then interrogated, and the director even stepped down!

Suspicions gradually turned to Guillaume Apollinaire, who had previously said he wanted to burn the Louvre down. Even Picasso was accused! After Apollinaire was quickly released, the manhunt continued and the Société des Amis du Louvre offered a reward of 25,000 francs to any person able to locate La Gioconda. But no-one came forward. So where had the Mona Lisa gone?

The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
The Mona Lisa on exhibition at the Louvre / Public domain

It would take two years for any new leads in the inquiry to come. Eventually, an Italian antique dealer informed police that a man had been in contact trying to sell the prized artwork. The thief was finally unveiled as Vincenzo Perrugia, a former glazier who had worked for the Louvre, giving him insider knowledge to the secrets behind the museum’s display cabinets.

For several months, the Mona Lisa had been sat in his apartment in Paris, hidden in the false bottom of a suitcase under his bed. The guilty man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing La Gioconda, who was returned to the museum in 1914. For more than a century, Da Vinci’s masterpiece has been the subject of especially tight security.

#2 The Scream and Madonna, Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, Le cri, tempera sur carton, 91 × 73,5 cm, Galerie Nationale d'Oslo
Edvard Munch, Le cri, tempera sur carton, 91 × 73,5 cm, Galerie Nationale d'Oslo
Munch, Madone (1894) / Version from Munch Museum, Oslo. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38126863
Munch, Madone (1894) / Version from Munch Museum, Oslo. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38126863

Terror at the Munch Museum, 22 August 2004. That was the dates two paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, were stolen in broad daylight right under visitors’ stunned gazes. Two masked and armed individuals stormed the museum to make off with the Norwegian artist’s two greatest masterpieces. A third accomplice was waiting for them at the museum’s exit!

The city of Oslo offered a reward of €250,000 to anyone able to return the two artworks. In 2006, the police found the pieces in “fairly good condition”, but no details of how they had been kept are known.

The two men suspected of the theft were sentenced to eight years in prison and a €95 million euro fine. The only thing we know for certain is that no ransom was paid and no new arrests have been made since.

#3 The Concert, Johannes Vermeer

One night in March 1990, two men dressed as police officers visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in order to steal a dozen paintings by masters. After locking up the museum’s guards, the robbers made off with artworks by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas. In the United States, the theft is considered the greatest unsolved art heist in the world!

The Concert, Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer, The Concert (1664) / Johannes Vermeer [Public domain]

In 2017, the museum offered 10 million dollars in exchange for any clues that would help with the still-open case. The paintings stolen almost 30 years ago have still never been found. The loot is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars

Various theories exist concerning the thieves’ identity. In 2013, the FBI claimed it knew the criminal’s identity but didn’t disclose any details. We later learned the suspect had died. The artworks seem to have passed through both Philadelphia and Connecticut.

Later, an 81-year-old man caught the authorities’ attention. He was perhaps the last to know where the pieces were hidden. The FBI eventually dropped the lead. Today, the museum continues to keep empty spaces dedicated to the stolen artworks.

#4 Poppy Flowers, Vincent Van Gogh

Poppy Flowers, Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh, Poppy Flowers (1886) / Vincent van Gogh [Public domain]

August 2010, the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo. Van Gogh’s painting Poppy Flowers (1886) is stolen. Worth an estimated 50 million dollars, the work had already been stolen in 1977 and recovered ten years later in Kuwait. At the time, the Egyptian courts accused 11 employees of the Ministry of Culture of neglecting their professional duties. They were all released on bail for $1,750.

Just a few hours after the theft, the Egyptian authorities thought they’d laid their hands on the robbers: two Italian suspects allegedly caught trying to board a plane to Italy with the famous painting. The two tourists had slipped into a group of Spanish and Russians for a guided tour of the museum.

One suspect was said to have claimed the museum’s cameras and alarm system weren’t working. The Egyptian Minister for Culture announced the artwork’s recovery… before then going back on his words. False alert! Van Gogh’s still life is still missing.

#5 The Boy in the Red Vest, Paul Cézanne

The Boy in the Red Vest, Paul Cézanne
The Boy in the Red Vest (1888 – 1890) / Paul Cézanne – Foundation E.G. Bürhle, Public domain

Zurich, 2008. One of Paul Cézanne’s paintings is stolen from the Foundation Emil G. Bürhle collection in Switzerland, along with various other artworks by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. The theft is considered one of the greatest ever committed in Europe. Understandably so, given The Boy in the Red Vest (1888 – 1889) is worth an estimated €100 million.

All’s well that ends well, however, and in 2012, the Serbian police found the artwork in Belgrade. Four suspects were arrested in an operation designed to tackle organized crime. Arms, ammunitions and 15 million euros worth of stolen goods were also seized.

Cézanne’s painting was eventually discovered in the roof of a car. The authorities were able to follow the trail of a buyer (one of the suspects) who was trying to sell the artwork for 3.5 million euros. They received 2.8 million euros before being arrested.