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Stolen Goods: The Strange History of Art Heists

Although the term ‘art history’ hardly evokes an image of masked bandits breaking into a museum or a mysterious disappearance of a priceless painting from a living room wall, art theft has always played an important role in the art world. Art is stolen for many reasons: sometimes for wealth, sometimes for power, sometimes for love and nostalgia. Whatever the reason, when a piece of art is stolen, the act of theft often ironically increases the value of the artwork in question. Theft adds mystery and historical acumen, it creates a narrative which often gives way to legend. The overarching thought could be summarized as, ‘if something is worth being stolen, it must be worth a lot’. At least this is the story that often gets told.

The reality of art heists is much less black and white. While most would assume that money is the principal reason for art theft, re-selling a stolen work of art is incredibly difficult and risky. This is probably why around 90% of all stolen artworks are destroyed by their thieves. Why then, does it keep happening? In this article, we dive into the strange history of art heists. We consider why art gets stolen and ask what art heists can tell us about how we come to value works of art. Heists can happen for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of places, but is there a common thread that unites all these stories? Let’s find out.

Picasso Gets Taken in Paris

While most of Picasso’s works are housed in museums, there are a few paintings which the artist refused to sell during his lifetime. These select works remain in the hands of family, such as Picasso’s granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Picasso. In February of 2007, Diana’s Paris home was infiltrated and $66 million worth of artwork disappeared. The robbery happened in the middle of the night and went virtually unnoticed. Diana and her mother Maya were both home at the time of the break-in. They both recall waking up after hearing a strange sound, but upon investigation saw nothing amiss in their home. It wasn’t until the next morning that they realized something had happened.

The robbery had been carefully planned. Diana’s address was not public, suggesting the heiress had likely been stalked before the break-in. The alarm system, which was always activated at night, had been disabled by a trained hand. Neither the apartment windows nor the front door showed any signs of forced entry. In all likelihood, the robbers had gained access to building entry codes and either picked the lock or had a key to her front door.

Maya a la Poupee (Maya with doll) 1938, one of the paintings stolen from the home of Maya and Dianna Widmaier-Picasso's home in 2007.
Maya a la Poupee (Maya with doll) 1938, one of the paintings stolen from the home of Maya and Dianna Widmaier-Picasso’s home in 2007.

For three years the paintings and their thief remained at large. It wasn’t until 2007 that the perpetrator was identified as Frenchman Abdelatif Redjil, a notorious burglar known for his ability to pick locks and enter buildings totally unnoticed. Though the case was high profile, the exact means by which Redjil was discovered to be the culprit are ill-reported. And it gets stranger. Before he was arrested for the Picasso heist, Redjil had already made a global name for himself as the first person to arrive on the scene of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash in August of 1997.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston

One of the most infamous art heists in history took place in 1990 at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. According to the FBI, the heist was pulled off by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England area, quite possibly the New England Mafia. The thieves had planned their hit ‘to a T’. Disguised as policemen, two men arrived at the Boston museum after hours, claiming to be responding to a ‘disturbance’, and were admitted into the building. Once inside, the fake policemen handcuffed the guards and proceeded to collect thirteen of the museum’s most famous works including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Degas. The total value of the stolen goods amounted to $550 million. More than twenty years later, the case has yet to be solved.

The empty frame of Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo: Josh Reynolds/AP.
The empty frame of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo: Josh Reynolds/AP.

In 2015, surveillance video footage surfaced which appeared to show the perpetrators rehearsing their crime the night before the hit. Many called into question the culpability of the security guards on duty that night, wondering if they had been accomplices, but charges have never been laid. In the early 2000s, the FBI stated that the stolen artworks had at one point been put up for sale in Philadelphia. However, it’s possible this was no more than a carefully placed red herring. As recently as 2017, it was suggested that the stolen artworks were being housed overseas in Ireland. The information came from art adviser and PI Arthur Brand who claimed to have gotten the lead from a former IRA informant who said the artworks have been circulating within the crime syndicate for years. That was two years ago, and, as of yet, neither Brand nor the FBI have been successful in locating the stolen masterpieces.

National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm

Three days before Christmas 2002, one of the best-executed heists took place at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Sweden. Three men wielding machine guns strolled into the fine art museum. One held the guards at gunpoint while the other two proceeded to steal three paintings, a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two paintings by Renoir, Conversation with the Gardner and Young Parisian. The estimated value of the three works was between $30-36 million.

Once the works were collected, the armed thieves made their way out of the museum and boarded a waiting speed boat in the neighboring harbor. But this was not the only precaution they took. The group also planted car bombs at strategic points around the city to distract police officers and slashed the tires of nearby police vehicles before entering the museum.

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm seen from the harbor where thieves escaped by boat.
The National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm seen from the harbor where thieves escaped by boat.

Despite the well-executed plan, within a month of the robbery all suspects were arrested, ten in total. The three artworks were subsequently recovered over the following four years. Renoir’s Conversation with the Gardner was discovered in an unrelated drug raid in 2001. In 2005, Rembrandt’s self-portrait was found in a Copenhagen hotel room, apparently intended for resale. Finally, Renoir’s Young Parisian was recovered by the FBI sometime between 2001-2005. The bureau has not told the public just how they managed to find the lost painting.

Nazis Systematically Plunder European Art (1933-1945)

The Nazi Plunder of WWII is potentially the largest systematic art heist in history. Adolf Hitler, despite his rejection from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, considered himself a fine-art connoisseur. Part of his connoisseur-ing involved imposing regulations around what could and could not be considered fine art during the mid-century. The dictator was adamantly opposed to modern art for example, especially Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism, all of which he considered the product of indulgent twentieth century society.

A chapel serves as a Nazi storage facility for stolen art circa WWII.
A chapel serves as a Nazi storage facility for stolen art circa WWII.

Under the Third Reich, art was stolen from every country under German occupation. The stolen art was taken for three primary reasons: to supply the Führermuseum, to fill the private collections of high-ranking officials, and to fund Hitler’s growing empire. In the case of the later, stolen art works were sold at public auction, the most famous of which was the “degenerate art” auction held in 1938. Despite the works being deaccessioned from German museums by the Nazis, the auction was well-attended attended by prestigious art dealers and museum curators.

Artworks taken from occupied countries were either held in the private collections of military and political officials or were stored en masse in designated collection points within Germany. During WWII, hundreds of thousands of artworks were taken by Nazi forces. Many works were stored in German mines where they would be protected from Ally bombings. When the Third Reich fell in 1945, Allied forces began the arduous process of restitution, managing to recover the principal amount of stolen works. However, many pieces, especially those kept in the private collections of Hitler’s accomplices, were never found and remain at-large.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I  commissioned Adele's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer an Austrian Jewish banker, in 1907. It was stolen by Nazi's in 1941 and became the subject of an exhausted restitution process in the early 2000s.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I commissioned Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer an Austrian Jewish banker, in 1907. It was stolen by Nazi’s in 1941 and became the subject of an exhausted restitution process in the early 2000s.

Moreover, while many works have been returned to their country of origin, many others were placed in museums rather than returned to their respective owners. This was largely due to the difficulty of finding the original owners in the wake of the war. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, published a list documenting 393 paintings in their collection that have gaps in their provenance during the Nazi Era. Likewise, the Art Institute of Chicago has listed over 500 works “for which links in the chain of ownership for the years 1933–1945 are still unclear or not yet fully determined”.

The Take Away

Does a common line of reason run between these disparate stories? In each, the means by which art was taken, and which artworks were designated worthy of theft, differs. In Stockholm, the Remberants and solitary Renoir taken were never intended for resale. The thieves demanded a ransom of $3 million for the safe return of the works, knowing resale would inevitably lead to their arrest. In Boston, the looted works were not taken for ransom and ostensibly were never meant for auction. Reports which point first to Mafia, and later to IRA, possession suggest the works could have been used as barter chips, never able to leave the criminal underworld, rather becoming illicit currency.

As the greatest unsolved art heist in history, the decision to keep the artworks hidden from the public domain seems to have been the key ingredient to the Boston heist’s lasting success. And, while the exact means by which Picasso thief Abdelatif Redjil was caught remain unknown, it is unlikely the arrest would have been made by tracing a subsequent sale of the stolen Picassos. Redjil was an “underworld figure” according to the BBC, who had been given nicknames such as Goldfinger or The Locksmith by his accomplices. Someone with such criminal acumen would have known well enough not to attempt to resell the work to an unknown or un-trusted buyer.

While the work of criminals like ‘Goldfinger’ or the unnamed Boston thieves is sensational and duly fascinating, these stories are the tip of the iceberg of stolen and missing art. The Mona Lisa was taken from the Louvre in 1911. In 2014, 1500 works were recovered in Munich, thought to be stolen during WWII, though such a charge was never laid. As recently as last week, a giant golden egg was removed from a public Dali sculpture in Vancouver, Canada, despite having no monetary value whatsoever. And, while ‘Goldfinger’ was forced to return the stolen Picasso, more than 400 of the artist’s works are designated as missing today.

The reasons for artwork theft are many. Sometimes art is stolen for monetary gain, as was the case in Stockholm, though this is the exception, not the rule since stolen art is prohibitively difficult to re-sell. Sometimes it can act as a barter chip, moving between crime syndicates as was allegedly the case in Boston. Or, and this is the most common scenario, the artworks disappear entirely, never to resurface; the intent behind their theft and their true function once stolen, forever unknown.

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