The 5 Most Famous Museum Heists

Find out the dramatic stories behind these art thefts

Art theft has always been big business. Different from looting, a museum robbery is more akin to a bank heist. It takes careful planning, an insider's knowledge of how a particular museum works and a shadowy network of conspirators to hide and sell stolen art on the black market. Even though most museums have 24/7 security, museum theft continues to happen. Some art thefts have been quickly solved like the theft of Edward Munch's "The Scream." Others, like the famous theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains an unsolved mystery. 

01 of 05

Fake Cops Rob the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Like a scene straight out of a movie, two thieves dressed as Boston Police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole thirteen works of art.

It was early in the morning on March 18, 1990 when the disguised thieves entered the museum claiming that they were responding to a disturbance. The Gardner's security officers violated protocol and let them in. The thieves then handcuffed the guards and put them in separate areas of the basement with duct tape around their hands, feet and heads. They were not discovered until the morning security team came on duty, but by then, the paintings valued at $500 million were longgone.

Among the most important works of art that were taken (and remain at large) are:

  • Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and a Self Portrait (1634) and an etching on paper.
  • Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660)
  •  Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638)
  • A Chinese vase or Ku, all taken from the Dutch Room on the second floor.
  • Five works on paper by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas
  • A finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag
  • Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) 

Speculation about who robbed the Gardner Museum has mostly focused on a network of Connecticut based mobsters who may have transported the paintings to Philadelphia before selling them for $500,000 each. In early 2016, the FBI obtained a search warrant to dig up the property of mobster Robert Gentile who is awaiting trial in a federal prison.

Four years prior, agents found a handwritten list of the stolen paintings in Gentile's hands. In October 2016, police officers were hoping to get a deathbed confession from Gentile. They offered him the opportunity to live out his last days with his family in Connecticut rather than prison in exchange for a confession, but Gentile said only "but there are no paintings." Gentile recovered and is still alive.

02 of 05

Mona Lisa Leaves the Louvre

The Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911
Public domain

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most famous artist of all time painted the Mona Lisa, but that's not why she's famous. The portrait of a Renaissance noblewoman was not the iconic image she is today until she was splashed all over newspaper covers in 1911 following her theft from the Louvre. 

The thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman who worked at the Louvre. He hid in a closet overnight, then tucked the painting beneath his smock and attempted to walk out. The door was locked, but a plumber opened the door and let Peruggia through. 

It was 24 hours before anyone noticed the Mona Lisa was missing, which, given the 400 galleries at the Louvre is not as outrageous as it may now sound. But once it was discovered that a work by the Renaissance master Leonardo was gone, the theft became international news.

Stories about the missing painting appeared around the world throughout the two year period it was gone. A bungled police investigation ensued and at one time, Pablo Picasso was considered a suspect! Peruggia was interviewed twice and then dismissed as a suspect.

Two years later, an art dealer in Florence received a letter from someone wanting to sell the Mona Lisa. It turned out to be Peruggia who, once caught, said he had stolen the painting so that it could be returned to Italy. He served 7 months in jail for the crime.

When the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, the painting was now a worldwide icon and symbol of the Renaissance. But had it been another painting that was stolen, the Mona Lisa might not be the object of devotion that it has become.

03 of 05

Renoir and Rembrandt Stolen in Stockholm

Stockholm at night
TanyaSv / Getty Images

In 2000, thieves entered Sweden's National Museum in Stockholm and pointed pistons and a sub-machine gun at the security guards. They took a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two small paintings by Renoir and then escaped by speedboats which were parked in the canal next to the museum.

In a scene even more dramatic than "The Thomas Crown Affair", two parked cars near the museum burst into flames, likely distractions set by the thieves, and spikes were thrown onto the ground to prevent a car pursuit. The estimated value of the three paintings was $45 million.

Famous works of art are difficult to sell and the Museum's director made a clear public statement that the museum didn't have the money for ransom, there was little point in asking. One painting was recovered soon after by Stockholm police, but the trail then went cold for five years.

FBI agents investigating a Eurasian crime syndicate helped to find the remaining paintings. One agent posed as an art buyer in a Copenhagen hotel where the Renoir was being offered for only half a million. The last painting was found in Los Angeles, one of the few places in the world where a famous painting might find a buyer. 

04 of 05

The Scream Is Lost and Found

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Public domain

The iconic painting along with a second by Edvard Munch, the pride of Norway, was stolen at gunpoint by two men in ski masks while terrified tourists looked on. Like the National Museum in Stockholm, the Munch Museum didn't pay a ransom as it was never able or willing to do so. 

Finally after two and a half years, a British police officer posed as an art buyer and arrested three men for the crime. "The Scream" and a second painting were feared to have been damaged, but were mostly unscathed.

There are four versions of "The Scream" all painted by Munch, one of which was stolen in 1994 prior to the Oslo Olympics. Also because a ransom was refused, the thieves were unable to sell the painting and it was eventually recovered.

Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05

Missing In Mexico City

The National Museum of Anthropology
Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology

In 1985, the biggest museum heist of all took place in Mexico City when thieves stole 140 priceless works of Mayan and Aztec art from the National Museum of Anthropology.

It was on Christmas Eve when thieves broke into the museum and easily opened seven glass display cases and grabbed many of the museum's most precious objects of pre-Columbian art.

Because the very best pieces from the collection were stolen, experts agree that the thieves must have had a strong knowledge of the collection and knew exactly which pieces they were targeting. They quickly removed the wooden corners from the cases and easily removed the panes of glass.

Nine police guards were interrogated by police, but were not charged with the crime. Experts agreed that the works were too famous to be sold on the international black market without being recognized. As such, it was feared that the works would then be destroyed when the thieves found that they were unable to sell them. To-date, only a small fraction of the stolen artworks have been discovered and it remains doubtful that the art will ever be seen again. They have either been sold to private collectors or destroyed forever. 

Was this page helpful?