These Art Museums Were the Sites of Dramatic Heists

If you've got a taste for unsolved mysteries and criminal capers, here are five world-class museums to visit.

By Rachel Brown
Published 10 May 2018, 23:33 BST

The depth of a da Vinci. The luminescence of a Vermeer. The vibrancy of a van Gogh. They’ve shaped the canon of Western art — and they’ve all been the centre of sensational art thefts.

Though high-profile heists may seem the stuff of movies, art crime is actually a multi-billion-pound business that often doubles as a money laundering front for international terrorist or organised crime groups. (Read about a museum in France that found half of its collection was fake.)

To get a taste of the drama without the danger, visit these world-class museums that have been the site of art heists — some still unsolved.

The Louvre

It might be hard to imagine a time before the Mona Lisa smiled enigmatically from a million souvenir mugs and pop culture references, but Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece wasn’t always quite so famous. In fact, its 1911 theft from Paris’s Louvre Museum — and the well-publicised search that ensued — is largely responsible for its current notoriety.

The Louvre had hired handyman Vincenzo Peruggia to install protective glass cases over paintings including the Mona Lisa. Instead, he hid overnight in a closet and walked out of the door the next morning with the stolen painting under his smock. Despite being interviewed twice by police during the course of their investigation, Peruggia was not caught until 1913, when he tried to sell the painting to a Florentine art dealer.

Today, the Mona Lisa is a main attraction at the world’s largest and most visited art museum. About 15,000 people visit the Louvre each day, so plan ahead. The museum recommends booking tickets in advance (though admission is free on the first Sunday of every month from October until March). If you’re looking to spot the Mona Lisa or other famous works, consider arriving before the museum opens to get a good spot in the queue — or choose to spend your time exploring the many amazing works that often go overlooked.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has twice been robbed. In September 2011, and again in October, an unidentified thief stole two small stone sculptures which had been displayed without protective cases. One, a 2,500-year-old sandstone carving, was worth around £750,000 —and turned up two years later in the home of an unsuspecting yoga instructor, who had bought it for £750. The other sculpture remains missing.

But the more dramatic of the two crimes was a 1972 midnight heist in which three armed robbers rappelled through a skylight, overpowered and tied up three guards, then made off on foot with 50 artworks, among them 18 renowned paintings.

The ensuing investigation — full of cryptic pay-phone messages, suspected ties to terrorists and organised crime, and a failed £7,500 ransom — is still unsolved. The 'Skylight Caper' is Canada’s largest art theft: initial losses were estimated at £1.5 million, though some art historians have estimated that the stolen paintings, including a Rembrandt, have since appreciated in value.

Despite the absence of its most famous items, the MMFA retains a collection of nearly 50,000 works. Located in Montreal’s historic downtown, the striking building doesn’t have a car park, so consider taking advantage of nearby public transportation.

Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum

Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum is another victim of double thefts — but in this case, of the same painting, a single-square-foot still life of poppy flowers painted by Vincent van Gogh.

The work was first stolen in 1978, but was found two years later in Kuwait (though details of the case remain scarce). In 2010, the painting was cut from its frame, and though Egyptian officials erroneously announced its recovery hours later, the £37 million ”Poppy Flowers” remains missing. An inspection of the museum revealed that only seven security cameras and none of the 50 alarms were working, and 11 culture ministry employees were found guilty of negligence.

One of Egypt’s best museums, the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum’s collection includes works by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists such as Auguste Renoir and Paul Gaugin. Round out any trip to Cairo with a visit to the museum, located on the banks of the Nile River a half hour’s drive from the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The 1990 Gardner Museum robbery is the granddaddy of the bunch. The 13 stolen works, including pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet, are worth a combined £370 million, making it the single largest property theft in history.

At 1:24 in the morning on March 18, two men disguised as police officers — one with a wax moustache — buzzed at the door of the celebrated Boston museum, claiming they were responding to a disturbance. Once the security guard let them in, they handcuffed him and the other officer on duty. They spent the next 81 minutes collecting their loot, even making two trips to the car.

Though still being actively investigated, the case is unsolved — and no less dramatic than the original theft. After 38 years of disappearing evidence, ransom letters, coded messages in The Boston Globe, and midnight trips to warehouses have turned up no sign of the missing works, the reward for information leading to all the paintings’ safe return has been raised to £7.5 million.

To mark the paintings’ absence — and await their hopeful return — the Gardner still displays the empty frames, a favourite shot for Instagramming visitors. Its world-renowned collection of historic and contemporary art is housed in a beautiful mansion in Boston’s Back Bay, and its delightfully active Twitter feed shares information about programmes and performances.

Museum of Art Fakes

Vienna’s Fälschermuseum has never been the scene of a crime. But on its walls hang works that, with the slightest change in attribution, would be crimes themselves.

Opened in 2005 to celebrate the odd history of forgery (and educate the public on how fraud can be stopped), the Museum of Art Fakes houses over 80 works by famous forgers like Han van Meegeren, whose imitation of Vermeer was once considered one of the Dutch master’s greatest pieces. Rembrandt, Picasso, and Matisse are some of the other heavyweights whose works inspired the imitations found here. (Learn how forgeries may be hiding in the Museum of the Bible.)

Visitors to the tiny museum can try to spot telltale signs and “time bombs,” clues that a work isn’t what it seems. Just blocks from the Danube River, the museum can be found near the Hundertwasser House, an architectural oddity popular with tourists.


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