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The Biggest Art Heists in History

Where there is art, there’s a chance to make money. A lot of money. Art heists have been happening for centuries. But as security technology has become more advanced, stealing art has turned into, well, something of an art. (An illegal art, to be clear.) Here are seven of the most headline-grabbing art heists in recent memory.

The Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

Empty frame hanging in a room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Credit: David L. Ryan/ The Boston Globe/ Getty Images

It was 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, when two men in police uniforms buzzed the guard at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, asking to come inside to respond to a report of a disturbance. But when the guard answered the call, he found himself handcuffed, tied up in the basement, and presumably shaking his head at a clever game of deception — the “police” were fake. With the guards muzzled, the thieves made off with more than $500 million worth of art, including works by Vermeer, Manet, Degas, and Rembrandt. More than 30 years later, none of the paintings have been recovered, despite a $10 million reward.

The Skylight Swipe

People walking near the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Credit: BakerJarvis/ Shutterstock

In 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was doing repairs on one of its skylights, covering the hole with a sheet of plastic. Apparently, somebody noticed. In the dead of night, three ski-masked burglars descended from the open skylight with nylon rope and rappelled down. It wasn’t long before the shotgun-toting men had bound and gagged all of the museum’s unarmed guards. The robbers stole 18 paintings and 39 pieces of jewelry. A week later, a cinematic ransom scene ensued, with suspicious phone calls from men with European accents and enigmatic messages sending investigators into phone booths and train stations in search of clues. Unfortunately, only one piece has been recovered.

The Daylight Robbery

Claude Monet's Impression Sunrise painting.
Credit: Buyenlarge/ Getty Images

The October 27, 1985 heist at Paris’s Musée Marmottan was more like a bank robbery than a sneaky art theft. Minutes after the museum opened, the armed robbers traipsed inside — two even bought tickets — before flashing their weapons. With the guards held at gunpoint and onlookers spread on the floor, the criminals stuffed reams of art into the trunk of a double-parked car. In total, the crime took only five minutes. The five gunmen made off with five Monets, two Renoirs, and two other artworks in broad daylight. In 1990, the works were discovered on the island of Corsica.

The Takeaway Rembrandt

Close up of Rembrandt's 1632 painting of Jacob de Gheyn III.
Credit: PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo

Rembrandt’s 1632 painting of Jacob de Gheyn III, a prominent Dutch engraver, has been stolen so many times, it’s been called the “Takeaway Rembrandt.” (One of the Old Master’s smallest works, its size — just under 12 inches by 10 inches — makes it easier to pilfer.) The painting has been discovered in some unlikely places: the back of a bicycle, under a cemetery bench, and near a train station luggage rack. However, the most cinematic heist occurred in 1983, when a burglar smashed a skylight at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, descended a rope à la Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and pried the painting off the wall with a crowbar.

The Green Vault Jewelry Heist

The Silver-Gilt Room in the Historic Green Vault in the Dresden Palace of the Dresden State Art Collections .
Credit: Sebastian Kahnert/ picture alliance/ Getty Images

Around 4 a.m. on November 25, 2019, the lights along the Augustus Bridge in Dresden, Germany, went dark. The power outage — caused when a nearby electrical box caught on fire — made some of the security alarms at the Green Vault Museum shut down. That’s when the thieves swooped in: The criminals cut the iron bars around a basement window, slipped through, and, guided by flashlights, smashed the ornate jewelry displays with an axe. One hour later, they slunk through the window with their hands full of rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. The heist included the 49-carat Dresden White Diamond, a sword encrusted with more than 700 precious stones, and jewelry belonging to 18th-century royalty. The total value of the stolen goods? More than $1 billion.

“The Loovre”

Exterior of the Whitworth Art Gallery.
Credit: Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England, is home to beautiful paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. But in 2003, three of these artworks — valued around $6 million — went missing. The details of the heist are unclear. But a few days after the gallery went blank, an anonymous tip sent police running to a graffiti-stained public toilet down the road. There, investigators discovered a wet cardboard tube with the three paintings inside. The only trace of the burglar was a handwritten note: “the intention WAS Not to SteaL. ONLY to HIghLight the WOEFUL Security.” Afterward, the press jokingly called the bathroom heist “The Loovre.”

France’s Criminal Spiderman

Exterior of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris.
Credit: Nigel Jarvis/ iStock

The cat burglar who robbed the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris was so crafty, locals called him Spiderman. Vjean Tomic spent six days preparing for the robbery, dabbing a window frame “with paint-stripping acid, exposing the head of each screw,” according to The New Yorker. “Then, after applying another solution, to eliminate rust, he removed the screws and filled the holes with brown modelling clay that matched the color of the window frame.” Then he removed the window with suction cups, broke a lock with bolt cutters, and stole $70 million worth of paintings. Tomic, who would describe “robbery as an act of imagination,” was only paid 40,000 Euros for the robbery. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.