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The 5 Most Memorable Art & Museum Heists in History

17th January 2020

From Breguet to Vermeer

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One of our specialities at Invicta Mobile Shelving is storing art and artefacts. Our work with museums, galleries and other institutions has helped to organise and preserve countless objects, maintaining our heritage for future generations. But storing priceless artefacts isn’t entirely about preservation; it can also be a matter of security.

Whether the flaw is with the method of storage, the security protocols or the other protections afforded to facilities, sometimes thieves manage to break through all of these layers, and undertake heists that live long in the popular imagination. Here then are just a few of history’s most enduring art heists, and what happened to the people who conducted them.


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist

Considered by many to be the biggest art heist in history, the Gardner robbery remains unsolved to this day. Occurring in Boston on St Patrick’s Day, two burglars – believed to be amateur criminals – duped a security guard by posing as police officers, and gained entrance to the museum. Having handcuffed the guard on false pretences, they then did the same to the other guard on patrol, and set to work.

The pair moved around the museum seemingly at random, cutting masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet and Degas out of their frames and smashing the frames of others. The seemingly random choice of works – they avoided several of the most valuable artworks – suggests that they had little idea of what they were taking. In total they escaped with 13 artworks, including a Chinese bronze Gu and a bronze eagle finial.

The two burglars have never been identified, and none of the works have ever been recovered. It’s widely believed that the city’s gangsters were involved in the heist, with speculation that it may have intended to fund the IRA, or simply to adorn a crime boss’ property. A hefty reward is still in place for information on the stolen works, whose current value is estimated at $500 million.


Mona Lisa heist

The Mona Lisa has always captivated the public, and was a prize jewel of both the French royals and the subsequent Republic, where Napoleon took to hanging it on his bedroom wall. But the painting’s modern legacy as the world’s greatest artwork was arguably cemented when it was stolen in 1911, under dramatic and politicised circumstances.

By the start of the 20th century, the painting had returned to its natural resting place at the Louvre, where it had been situated since the late 1700s. Security however was limited at this point, allowing an unknown individual to skulk into the gallery dressed as an employee, stay the night, and walk out with the painting under his clothes the next morning, with the other staff none the wiser.

The painting would not emerge for another two years, when the culprit – a petty criminal and former employee – returned it to his native Italy. Offering the masterpiece to an art dealer in Florence, he travelled to the city by train, with the painting hidden in the false bottom of his trunk. He was promptly arrested, and the Mona Lisa would briefly go on display again in Italy, before being returned to its home at the Louvre.


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts heist

Though its works were of less value than some other heists, the Montreal burglary remains the largest in Canadian history, and continues to confound law enforcement to this day. Three men are believed to have taken advantage of reduced security to steal 18 paintings, then valued at around $2 million. While some of the artworks have now been reattributed, the stolen Rembrandt is believed to be worth $20 million alone.

The thieves managed to gain access to the roof via a nearby tree, before lowering a ladder left by construction workers. They then lowered themselves down through a skylight that was undergoing repairs, and had its alarm disabled. Subduing the guards, they collected several dozen works, and decided to leave using one of the museum’s trucks. However, they triggered an alarm on the way out, and escaped on foot with just half of their haul.

A series of major news stories – including the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics – and a bungled sting operation impeded the response to the theft. One artwork was recovered in the latter case, but the remaining 17 pieces are still missing. No suspect has ever been officially named in the case, which has been variously linked to the Montreal Mafia and Quebec separatists – a factor in the Museum’s lack of funding at the time.


L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art heist

While we tend to think of artworks as paintings adorning the walls, there are plenty of other pieces prized by collectors. The L.A. Mayer Institute in Jerusalem is best known for its Islamic artworks, but its founder, the daughter of scientist Sir David Lionel Salomons, also bequeathed an impressive collection of watches. These were the primary target of the heist in 1983, which took decades to come to a conclusion.

At the time of the robbery the museum’s alarm system was not working, and the guard was stationed at the front of the property. A truck was parked up against the rear wall, where the bars were pried off to gain access. Some 200 pieces were stolen, including a large collection of timepieces by the famous watchmaker Breguet. These included the ‘Marie Antoinette’ watch, believed to have been commissioned by the queen herself and worth some $30 million.

Having long believed that four burglars were involved, it was eventually found that a single man had planned and conducted the robbery. When he died in 2004, his widow attempted to sell some of the pieces back to the museum. It was found that the burglar had stashed the items in safe deposits around the world, and the vast majority of the artworks have now been recovered.


The Breitwieser thefts

While not pertaining to a single heist, Frenchman Stéphane Breitwieser can claim to have conducted more than any person in history. The roaming waiter and art lover undertook a prolonged campaign of art thefts between 1995 and 2001, stealing a piece of art every 15 days on average. By the time he was captured, he had stolen 239 artworks by his account, each one of which he was able to recite by name.

His first theft came during a visit to a German castle, where he worked a small painting loose and hid it under his jacket. While Breitwieser would usually target smaller museums and institutions with lax security, he also made a habit of visiting auctions. His most valuable theft was a piece by Lucas Cranach the Elder, worth around £5.5 million, which he lifted from a Sotheby’s auction at castle in Baden-Baden.

While Breitwieser had been caught several times, he was not tied to the crime spree until 2001, where he was caught returning to the scene of a previous crime by a journalist and his dog. 110 of the artworks have been recovered, but in an ironic twist, many were sadly destroyed. The art loving criminal had left them with his mother, who – unaware of their value or prominence – destroyed as many as sixty masterpieces to protect her son from prosecution.

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