Calling all armchair art detectives.
In our latest episode of Passport, we track the unfolding story of the brazen art theft of a priceless Van Gogh that shocked the world this March. That theft made the FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes… yeah, that list is a thing. So we wanted to know – what are the other nine? And is there any hope of tracking them down or are they lost forever? This week on The Ticket – become an armchair art detective as we uncover the wildest art thefts in history.
There’s something especially intriguing about art theft. I think it’s because in most robberies, the items stolen might be incredibly valuable, but they’re also ultimately replaceable. Your stolen Ferrari? I feel bad for you (though not that bad, you have a Ferrari, after all). But you can file an insurance claim and buy another Ferrari likely identical to the one taken. Bank get robbed? The number of zeros in the haul might shock, but ultimately, we’re talking about identical pieces of paper, save for a serial number. But as our episode of Passport this week dove into – when something like a Van Gogh is stolen – it’s more than just a crime against the museum or person it was taken from – it’s like a crime against culture itself. There will only ever be one of that particular masterpiece. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.
And equally intriguing is the question… who buys a stolen masterpiece? When most items are stolen, every effort is made to erase their origin so that they can be sold in the open. Cars are broken up for parts, stolen cash is laundered and dispersed, serial numbers are filed off. But what kind of person – how much power and ego do you have to possess – to purchase a stolen masterpiece and display it? We wanted to know.
And so does the FBI. For decades, they’ve kept a list of the Top 10 Art Crimes. And each stolen piece of art has its own movie-worthy story to go with it. So without further ado, here they are.
#10 They Didn’t Know What They Had
FBI FILE: Theft of Renoir Oil Painting
This one stands out because it’s one of the few on the list that involves a private owner. This painting wasn’t stolen from a collection or a museum; it was a violent, armed robbery in a Houston home. On the night of September 8th, 2011, the owner – whose identity has been kept a secret for her safety – noticed flashing lights downstairs. She ventured down to check it out and was confronted by an armed intruder wearing a mask. He demanded money and jewels. Fearing the robber would go upstairs, where her young son was sleeping, she pointed out the Renoir – called Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair – as the most valuable thing she owned. The robber took it and vanished – and the painting has never been seen since. Today, Private Art Theft Investigator Bob Wittman is on the case. Wittman is a former FBI agent who now hunts for stolen art. During his FBI career, he managed to catch two thieves in the process of trying to sell a stolen Rembrandt, recover the golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king, and even save an original copy of the Bill of Rights believed lost for 100 years. So if anyone can find Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair, it’s Bob Wittman. He believes this was a crime of opportunity and that the robber had no idea what he was stealing. For that reason, the greatest fear is that the painting was destroyed to cover up the evidence once he realized what he had – but likely couldn’t find a buyer since he wasn’t an experienced art thief.
#9 In Plain Sight
FBI FILE: Theft from Art Gallery of New South Wales
Talk about brazen. On June 10, 2007, A Cavalier, a self portrait in oil on wood panel by Dutch Master Frans Van Mieris, was stolen from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. But the kicker: the piece was stolen while the gallery was open for public viewing. That’s right. Sometime between 10am and 12:30pm, the thief or thieves unscrewed the painting – in plain sight – and stole this relatively small portrait measuring 20 x 16 cm with an estimated value of over $1 million. Despite there being CCTV footage and a gallery full of people – no suspect has ever been identified. The stolen painting has its own website, dedicated to finding it here.
#8 The Greatest Diversion on Earth
FBI FILE: Theft from the Museu Chácara Do Céu, Rio De Janeiro
Every great art theft needs a few key ingredients. First, a TEAM. You need a posse that possesses the exact skills you’ll need to get the painting and get away. Second, a PLAN. Which paintings are accessible? What do you need to extract them? And how do you gain access to the location where they’re being kept? And lastly and most importantly – TIMING. And this theft was ALL about the timing. In 2006, while the city of Rio collectively partied its head off during its famed Carnival celebration, a team of thieves entered the Museu Chácara Do Céu and took not one, but FOUR, masterpieces. Using Carnival as the ultimate distraction, armed thieves entered the museum and threatened the staff with hand grenades, forcing them to disarm the alarm. In the end, they made off with a Matisse, a Monet, a Dali, AND a Picasso. The heist was so massive, it’s hard to even estimate how much all these paintings are worth – though some have put it at over $50 million.
#7 The Alarm Who Cried Wolf
FBI FILE: Theft of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals
West Hollywood or WeHo as it’s known is a place known for plenty of flash and drama. And this theft was definitely Hollywood worthy. At around midnight, thieves entered a West Hollywood gallery by cutting a hole into the roof. Then they entered into the drop ceiling where there was access to the alarm system and disarmed it by stripping the wires and shorting out the electrical system. Sounds pretty standard, so far, right? Here’s where it gets Oceans 11. Then, the thieves INTENTIONALLY SET OFF THE ALARM. Over the next 12 hours, as they hid in the ceiling, they set it off another 8 times. Each time the police and security teams responded. And each time all the paintings were still in their frames and nothing was touched. By the 8th time, the police and security team assumed there was a faulty alarm system. The thieves then entered the gallery and cut the paintings out of their frames and took them out through the hole in the ceiling. It is thought that these paintings were targeted, since the thieves only took these two works and left other paintings also worth millions. What is unknown is why those two specific panels, which were paintings from a series commissioned for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s 5th Avenue mansion in New York, were taken. The value of the works is estimated at $4.5 million.
#6 The OTHER Greatest Diversion on Earth
FBI FILE: Theft of Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise
According to the FBI’s website, “On December 31, 1999, during the fireworks that accompanied the celebration of the millennium, a thief broke into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England and stole Cezanne’s landscape painting View of Auvers-sur-Oise. Valued at £3 million, the painting has been described as an important work illustrating the transition from early to mature Cezanne painting.” Another example of thieves planning the perfect crime at the perfect time.
#5 Where Did The Paintings Gogh?
FBI FILE: Van Gogh Museum Robbery
Like our episode of Passport this week, this one involves a Van Gogh – two, actually. In December of 2002, thieves used a ladder to climb onto the roof and break into the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In just a few minutes, they stole Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, valued at $30 million. But this is the only theft on the FBI’s list that has a happy ending so far. In 2003, Dutch police convicted two men of the theft, however the paintings remained missing for over 13 years… until 2016 when they were discovered under the kitchen floor of a villa associated with Camorra gang boss Raffaele Imperiale. The Camorra is an Italian mafia organization – similar to Sicily’s Costa Nostra – that originated in the Campania region of Italy – Naples is its capital – and has been running things there since the 17th century. The paintings were subsequently restored and given back to the museum, where they went back on display in March of 2017.
However – while this one might have made it off the FBI’s unsolved list – it’s likely to be replaced by the theft of two more Van Goghs from Amsterdam in March of 2020, which our latest episode of Passport covers.
#4 The Day The Music Died
FBI FILE: Theft of the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius
This theft is notable for two reasons. First, it’s another theft from an actual person vs a gallery or museum. But second, it expands on the very idea of what is considered art – because in this case, it wasn’t a painting or sculpture that went missing, it was a violin. It’s also one of the saddest stories on the list. In October of 1995, while world-renowned concert violinist Erica Morini lay in a hospital bed dying, thieves broke into her NYC apartment and stole the priceless Stradavaius violin her father had bought for her in Paris in 1924. Made in 1727 by Antonio Stradivari, the violin is known as the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius and is estimated to be worth $3 million. Once called the “most bewitching woman violinist of the Century” and touted by the New York Times as “probably the greatest woman violinist who ever lived,” Erica Morini had regaled audiences all over the world with it for decades. But in her final days, detectives believe someone with access to her apartment and lockbox stole it. It’s theft was hidden from Erica and she passed away just a few days afterwards, never knowing her beloved instrument was gone. Along with it, some of Erica’s personal pictures and letters were also stolen. Of all the stories on the FBI’s top 10 list, this one feels the most cruel.
#3 The Italian Job
FBI FILE: Theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco
On a dark and stormy night, thieves climbed through a broken window and stole baroque master Caravaggio’s painting. You can read more about the wild theft – and the Sicilian mafia’s undoubted role in it – in our previous blog “The Great Palermo Art Heist”. Passport spent time in Sicily learning about the growing conflict between the chefs and the mafia in Palermo. And in our deep dive into the topic, we learned about this still missing masterpiece.
#2 Lucky 13
FBI FILE: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft
This one is straight out of a Scorcese movie. On March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum under the guise of responding to a disturbance. Once inside, they tied up the security guards, and over the next hour, they stole 13 artworks including paintings by European masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. Their haul – the largest property crime in U.S. history – is estimated to be worth a staggering $500 million. The museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the art’s recovery, the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution. There are no leads and none of the masterpieces have ever been recovered. But theories abound – and most center on Boston’s organized-crime scene. Some believe that gangster Bobby Donati organized it to negotiate for his capo’s release from prison; but we’ll never know because Donati was murdered a year after the robbery. Some suspect a gang out of Dorchester, though they deny involvement even after a sting operation put some of them in prison. And so it remains one of the greatest art theft mysteries in US history.
#1 War Crimes
FBI FILE: Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts
There’s a special place in hell for those who loot works of art during war. As a nation is physically and emotionally ripped apart by war, to steal its culture at the same time is the height of craven. But of course, there is no honor among thieves. And so it’s no surprise that during the Iraq War, there were those who seized upon the opportunity to turn a profit while Iraq laid in ruins. In March and April 2003, Iraqi cultural institutions and archaeological sites were looted mercilessly. While some of the artifacts have been recovered and returned, it’s estimated that between 7,000-10,000 still remain missing. There is a lot to be said – more than ever could be in a silly blog post – about the true cost of war. War destroys lives, alliances, nations, and order. But one of the things not often thought about is the toll it takes on art. It wasn’t until decades after WW2 that the world started to become truly aware of all the priceless art that the Nazis had stolen during that cataclysmic conflict. And the same is true of the Iraq War. It will be years before we truly understand just how many priceless artifacts of antiquity went missing. Perhaps they’re displayed on the wall of an Isis commander. Maybe they’re under the kitchen floorboards of a warlord or corrupt contractor. Hopefully someday, they’ll be returned.
Portrait and Lamp, photo by Руслан Гамзалиев on Unsplash
People Photographing Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, photo by Ståle Grut on Unsplash
Renoir’s Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair, via WikiArt
Van Mieris’ A Cavelier via WikiMedia Commons
Festival Lady, photo by Ugur Arpaci on Unsplash
Hollywood, photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
London Eye, Photo by Kevin Hackert on Unsplash
At the Van Gogh Museum, photo by Jean Carlo Emer on Unsplash
Fenway Court Interior, photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Iraqi Museum, photo by MohammadHuzam (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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