A Century of Art Thefts

An immense artistic heritage valued around 5 billion euros is irretrievably lost every year.  It is the profitable black market of art.  The most sought after masterpieces are those of Picasso and Van Gogh, but the most famous thefts are those of the Mona Lisa and the Scream by Munch.  Unfortunately, there are too many police forces that are not coordinated at an international level.  And there are still many museums that are not equipped with effective security systems.

There is one positive note.  Since 1969 Italy has had one of the best investigative units to counter art theft.  It is entrusted to a branch of the Carabinieri for the protection of Italy’s cultural heritage.  But today new international alarms come from countries violated by Isis, with the looting of their artistic heritage, which disappears into thin air, and then is sold by fencers to ravenous western collectors.

Here is a review of some of the famous art thefts of the last century.  The 1900s opens with downloadthe most famous theft (see post of 12 November 2015).  La Gioconda  (Mona Lisa) of Leonardo da Vinci was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by a former employee.  The thief was Vincenzo Perrugia, an Italian patriot who mistakenly thought that Napoleon had stolen it from Italy.  Peruggia entered the Louvre during the day, hid in a broom closet, and left at night with the Mona Lisa hidden under his overcoat.  He kept it in a suitcase under his bed in a Paris apartment.   His mistake was to try to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence two years later.

According to Thomas D. Bazley, author of “Crimes of the Art World,” 90% of stolen art work is never recovered, and this fact assumes enormous proportions if you think of the Art stolen by the Nazisartistic heritage robbed during the Second World War.  During the Nazi occupation, Italy was robbed of such a huge amount of art that is difficult to quantify both in numbers and economic value.   Toward the end of the war negotiations began with Germany for restitution, with the Americans as brokers, who after September 1943 formed a special force to catalogue the assets stolen from Italy.

A big question is what happened to the paintings preserved by the Italian embassy in Berlin, which disappeared on the arrival of the Russians in the spring of 1945, together with so many other art works stolen from Italy on the direct orders of Hermann Goering.   The most striking case is that of two ships of the Roman emperor Caligula:  Recovered by the Fascist regime with the hulls miraculously intact at the beginning of the ‘30s from a small lake, they were placed in a museum specifically constructed for them.  They were burned by the Nazis 3 days before the Allies entered Rome.

Systematic looting ended after the war, but museums and private collectors continued to Duca di Wellingtonbe robbed of their treasures.   In 1961 the “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” by the Spaniard, Francesco Goya, was stolen from the National Gallery of London, which had just acquired it.  In 1965 the thief turned himself in.  He was an older man who had managed to enter the museum thanks to a simple ladder forgotten by workers at a nearby construction site.

The most burning case, at least in Italy, remains that of the “Nativity” by Caravaggio, Natività di Caravaggiostolen at night in October 1969 from the Oratory of the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, and never recovered.  Among the paths followed by the investigators was that of the Mafia, which could have used the painting as a bargaining chip with various institutions.  The most probable theory is that it was destroyed, perhaps buried in the countryside of Palermo or burned by the Mafia, or even exchanged with the Camorra and then tragically disappeared in the earthquake of 1980 in Irpinia.

In the ‘70s, two masterpieces of French impressionism were stolen in London:  One was a London theftstill life, “Fruit on the table with a  Little Puppy” by Paul Gaughuin and “Woman with 2 Armchairs” by Pierre Bonnard.  The paintings were stolen from a wealthy English couple living in London.  After the theft, the canvases took an unpredictable path and remained in an Italian railway wagon coming from Paris.  In the end, they were bought by a Fiat worker at auction for the ridiculous amount of 45,000 lire.

Madonna_di_SenigalliaIn 1975 another incredible theft took place at the Palazzo Ducale in Flagellazione di CristoUrbino.  Thieves stole “Madonna di Senigallia” and the “Flagellazione di Cristo” by Piero della Francesca.  Fortunately, the works were retrieved by the Carabinieri a year later in Locarno.  Also in 1975, in the Modern Art Gallery in Milan 28 paintings were stolen, including those of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaughuuin, Renoir and Corot.

The following year opens with an incredible theft from Florence’s Stibbert Museum:  Carted off were 11 works of Tiepolo, Botticelli, Paul Brill, Neri di Bicci and other great artists.  And it wasn’t only paintings:  in Saint Louis in 1978 3 statues of Auguste Rodin were stolen.  And in 1983 art thieves managed to haul away from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest 7 masterpieces of the Italian renaissance.  The works would fortunately be recovered in an abandoned Greek convent.

Isabella Stewart GardnerOne of the most famous art thefts in the United States was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.  Two fake police officers came into the museum without any difficulty and hauled away paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas for a value between 400 and 500 million dollars.  They have never been recovered.

Besides Picasso and Van Gogh, another painter targeted by criminals tied to the art world Urlois Edvard Munch, and in particular his “Scream.”  Stolen the first time in February of 1994, it was recovered 3 months later.  The thieves had left a note that said, “thanks for the lax security.”  The second theft, in 2004, was in true Hollywood style, with robbers armed to the teeth who entered the Oslo museum full of visitors.  Again this time, after a few years, the work was recovered.

In 1998 it’s Rome’s turn, where at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, “Il giardiniere” and “L’Arlésienne” of Vincent Van Gogh were stolen.  Some masked men Vincent Van GoghL'Arlesienne-(Madame-Ginoux)tied up the night guards and escaped undisturbed after having taken the 2 Van Gogh canvases together with a Cezanne as shown on the security system’s camera.  The Carabinieri resolved the case 2 months later, arresting 8 people, among which was the insider—a guard at the museum.

Giovane parigIn December of 2000 at the National Museum of Sweden in Il giardiniereStockholm were stolen a self-portrait by Rembrandt and 2 Renoir paintings—“Giovane parigina” and “Il gardiniere,” valued at about $30 million.  The theft was completed in a few minutes by 3 armed men that burst into the museum at closing time.  “Il gardiniere” would be subsequently recovered by the police, while the other two, despite not being saleable, were never recovered.

On New Year’s evening of 2000,  a Cezanne painting, “Auvers-sur-Oise” was stolen fromView_of_Auvers-sur-Oise_Paul_Cezanne the Ashmolean Museum in the university city of Oxford, England.  Its value was estimated at around 3.5 million euros.  The thieves climbed onto the roof from the neighboring Department of the History of Art and from the skylight of the Ashmolean went down through the roof and removed the painting from the wall.

Van_Gogh_-_Die_Kirche_von_Nuenen_mit_KirchgängernThen another Van Gogh targeted:  in 2002 from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam “The Reformed Church  di Nuenen” and “View from the Beach of Scheveningen” were stolen.  These paintings belong scheveningen--230x180to the first Dutch period of the painter and have a value so high that it is impossible to calculate, even though $100 million has been suggested.  In 1991 20 canvases of Van Gogh had been stolen from the Amsterdam museum dedicated to the artist, among which was a version of the famous “Sunflowers.”  Fortunately, the works were recovered a few hours later, in an abandoned car.

madonna_dei_fusiMore shrewd were the thieves who in 2003 stole a Leonardo work, “Madonna dei Fusi,” blending in with the tourists at the Castle of Drumlanrig of the Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland.  For 4 years police searched for it all over the world.  In 2007 it was found in a law office in Glasgow, hanging in plain sight as if nothing had happened.

In 2008 from the Buehrle Museum in Zurich, 4 impressionist paintings of Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Cezanne were stolen, in what is considered one of the hits best organized in the history of art theft.  And in 2012 it is the turn of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, where 5 priceless works were stolen, including paintings of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Antonio-Pisano-detto-Pisanello-Madonna-col-bambino-detta-Madonna-della-quaglia-tempera-su-tavola-cm-54x32The last art crime in order of time is the theft from the Castelvecchio Museum of Verona in November of 2015 (see post of January 21, 2016):  17 paintings were stolen by a professional gang, probably on commission.  Among the artists were Tintoretto, Peter Paul Rubens, Mantegna, Pisanello and Bellini.  The real value of the marvelous works can’t be calculated.

UPDATE:  An unbelievable turning point in the investigation of the “hit of the century” in Verona.  In March of 2016, 12 men were arrested—2 Italians and 10 of Maldavian nationality.  Among the men was the “insider”—the guard on duty at the Castelvecchio the night of the robbery.  At this time the art has not yet been recovered by it is believed to be held somewhere in Moldavia (a principality between Romania and the Ukraine).












This entry was posted in Arte, English, Foto, Italia, Milano, Sicilia, Storia, Verona. Bookmark the permalink.

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