Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is known as a "palace turned inside out" because of its beautiful courtyard. In 1990, the Gardner was robbed of 13 paintings worth a collective $500 million, the largest property theft in history.
The depth of a da Vinci. The luminance of a Vermeer. The vibrancy of a van Gogh. They’ve shaped the canon of Western art—and they’ve all been the center of sensational art thefts.
Though high-profile heists may seem the stuff of movies, art crime is actually a multi-billion-dollar business that often doubles as a money laundering front for international terrorist or organized crime groups. (Read about a museum in France that found half of its collection was fake.)
To get a taste of the drama without the danger, visit these world-class museums that have been the site of art heists—some still unsolved.
It might be hard to imagine a time before the Mona Lisa smiled enigmatically from a million souvenir mugs and pop culture references, but Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece wasn’t always quite so famous. In fact, its 1911 theft from Paris’s Louvre Museum—and the well-publicized search that ensued—is largely responsible for its current notoriety.
The Louvre had hired handyman Vincenzo Peruggia to install protective glass cases over paintings including the Mona Lisa. Instead, he hid overnight in a closet and walked out of the door the next morning with the stolen painting under his smock. Despite being interviewed twice by police during the course of their investigation, Peruggia was not caught until 1913, when he tried to sell the painting to a Florentine art dealer.
Today, the Mona Lisa is a main attraction at the world’s largest and most visited art museum. About 15,000 people visit the Louvre each day, so plan ahead. The museum recommends booking tickets in advance (though admission is free on the first Sunday of every month from October through March). If you’re looking to spot the Mona Lisa or other famous works, consider arriving before the museum opens to get a good spot in line—or choose to spend your time exploring the many amazing works that often go overlooked.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has twice been robbed. In September 2011, and again in October, an unidentified thief stole two small stone sculptures which had been displayed without protective cases. One, a 2,500-year-old sandstone carving, was worth around $1 million—and turned up two years later in the home of an unsuspecting yoga instructor, who had bought it for $1,000. The other sculpture remains missing.
But the more dramatic of the two crimes was a 1972 midnight heist in which three armed robbers rappelled through a skylight, overpowered and tied up three guards, then made off on foot with 50 artworks, among them 18 renowned paintings.
The ensuing investigation—full of cryptic pay-phone messages, suspected ties to terrorists and organized crime, and a failed $10,000 ransom—is still unsolved. The “Skylight Caper” is Canada’s largest art theft: Initial losses were estimated at $2 million, though some art historians have estimated that the stolen paintings, including a Rembrandt, have since appreciated in value.
Despite the absence of its most famous items, the MMFA retains a collection of nearly 50,000 works. Located in Montreal’s historic downtown, the striking building doesn’t have a parking lot, so consider taking advantage of nearby public transportation.
Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum
The work was first stolen in 1978, but was found two years later in Kuwait (though details of the case remain scarce). In 2010, the painting was cut from its frame, and though Egyptian officials erroneously announced its recovery hours later, the $50 million ”Poppy Flowers” remains missing. An inspection of the museum revealed that only seven security cameras and none of the fifty alarms were working, and 11 culture ministry employees were found guilty of negligence.
This forged Mark Rothko painting was part of an art dealer's 15-year scam that fooled collectors into buying more than $60 million of counterfeit paintings attributed to Rothko and others.
One of Egypt’s best museums, the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum’s collection includes works by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists such as Auguste Renoir and Paul Gaugin. Round out any trip to Cairo with a visit to the museum, located on the banks of the Nile River a half hour’s drive from the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The 1990 Gardner Museum robbery is the granddaddy of the bunch. The 13 stolen works, including pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet, are worth a combined half billion dollars, making it the single largest property theft in history.
At 1:24 in the morning on March 18, two men disguised as police officers—one with a wax moustache—buzzed at the door of the celebrated Boston museum, claiming they were responding to a disturbance. Once the security guard let them in, they handcuffed him and the other officer on duty. They spent the next 81 minutes collecting their loot, even making two trips to the car.
Though still being actively investigated, the case is unsolved—and no less dramatic than the original theft. After 38 years of disappearing evidence, ransom letters, coded messages in The Boston Globe, and midnight trips to warehouses have turned up no sign of the missing works, the reward for information leading to all the paintings’ safe return has been raised to $10 million.
To mark the paintings’ absence—and await their hopeful return—the Gardner still displays the empty frames, a favorite shot for Instagramming visitors. Its world-renowned collection of historic and contemporary art is housed in a beautiful mansion in Boston’s Back Bay, and its delightfully active Twitter feed shares information about programs and performances.
Museum of Art Fakes
Opened in 2005 to celebrate the odd history of forgery (and educate the public on how fraud can be stopped), the Museum of Art Fakes houses over 80 works by famous forgers like Han van Meegeren, whose imitation of Vermeer was once considered one of the Dutch master’s greatest pieces. Rembrandt, Picasso, and Matisse are some of the other heavyweights whose works inspired the imitations found here. (Learn how forgeries may be hiding in the Museum of the Bible.)
Visitors to the tiny museum can try to spot telltale signs and “time bombs,” clues that a work isn’t what it seems. Just blocks from the Danube River, the museum can be found near the Hundertwasser House, an architectural oddity popular with tourists.
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