Few things arouse envy and desire like a valuable painting by a famous master. For years, museums and private collectors have tried to stay one step ahead of criminals by securing their treasured pieces with the latest security. But the best-laid plans often go awry. Determined thieves have made off with works by artists like Van Gogh, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, never to be heard of again. Law enforcement officials and the general public can only speculate on the whereabouts of these works and hope that one day the paintings will materialize.
1. Le pigeon aux petits pois
Picasso’s stunning oil on canvas was not particularly well known until its dramatic theft from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Valued at $28 million, “Le pigeon aux petits pois” was painted in 1911, the year that is considered the pinnacle of the Cubist movement. Not content with merely pilfering Picasso’s abstract work, the lone thief also made off with four other paintings, including a Matisse. Altogether, the haul was valued at about $123 million.
The masked burglar entered the building easily, breaking a padlock that secured a gate. He then smashed a window and slipped inside. The three security guards stationed inside the museum heard and saw nothing. The theft wasn’t discovered until the morning. The only evidence the police had was grainy security footage of the masked man. The art community was outraged when the subsequent police investigation revealed that the security system in several of the museum’s rooms had been out of order for three months. Despite initial suspicions of the theft being an inside job, neither the French police nor Interpol ever found any trace of the paintings beyond the frames which had been discarded by the burglar. Three men were later implicated in the theft, but they claimed they had disposed of the paintings in a panic shortly after the robbery. This story did not impress officers of France’s elite BRB police force. They believe that Picasso’s painting is still intact, possibly nestled in a secure hiding place or in the vault of an unscrupulous private collector.
2. The Concert
Vermeer’s beautiful masterpiece has long been held up by art historians as one of the finest examples of his harmonious style. It is an exemplary work of the so-called “merry company” genre that was favored by Dutch artists in the 17th century. The portrait’s subjects have been an endless source of speculation. Are the women depicted in the painting high-class prostitutes or merely musically inclined ladies from a wealthy family? As one of the few surviving Vermeers, “The Concert” is conservatively valued at a hefty $200 million.
Until March 1990, “The Concert” was displayed in a gallery at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Its theft was brash and dramatic. It captured the public imagination as few other art thefts have. In the wee small hours of the morning, two police officers approached the museum guard, claiming that they had received reports of a disturbance. While the guard tried to explain that there had been no such disturbance, one of the officers insisted that there was a warrant out for the guard’s arrest. The guard, a Berklee student that smoked marijuana on occasion, became nervous and left his post behind the desk to show the officers his identification. They promptly handcuffed him, still claiming there was a warrant issued for the guard. When his colleague arrived to see what the commotion was, they also handcuffed him and announced that they were there to steal paintings. With the guards out of the way, the burglars strolled through the museum, selecting several different pieces including “The Concert”. They then vanished, never to be heard of again. Despite a $5 million reward and multiple investigations over a period of more than 20 years, none of the hauls has ever been recovered.
Cézanne’s 1880 landscape of the French village Auvers-sur-Oise was not the focal point of the Ashmolean Museum’s Western art collection. That honor belonged to Picasso’s “Blue Roofs”, located in the same gallery as “Auvers-sur-Oise”. The painting had been donated to the museum by a family who fled Nazi Germany for Oxford in the late 1930s. At 16 inches by 22 inches, it is a small work and in 1990 was worth a fairly modest $3 million.
A new chapter in the painting’s history opened on New Year’s night, 1999. Under the cover of fireworks celebrating the turn of the century, a thief crept across rooftops at Oxford University until he or she reached the Ashmolean. Cutting a hole in a skylight, the burglar rappelled down into the gallery below. Once safely on the ground, the thief set off a smoke grenade to screen the robbery from surveillance cameras. This activated the smoke alarms and prevented the guards from realizing that there was an intruder. The night watchmen instead believed that a fire had broken out. By the time they noticed that there had been a theft, the burglar had already escaped with Cézanne’s landscape. As the museum had much more valuable pieces, officers speculated that the painting had been stolen for a particular person. The museum’s director cited the extensive media coverage of a Cézanne that had been purchased for £18 million several weeks before the theft and suggested that the enterprising thief had believed that “Auvers-sur-Oise” would bring a similar sum. No trace has been found of the painting. It is now valued at $6.5 million.
4. View of the Sea at Scheveningen
In 1882, Van Gogh was visiting the seaside town of Scheveningen. There, he became inspired by the tumultuous look of the ocean before an oncoming storm. He set up his easel on the beach and painted a seascape then and there. After Van Gogh’s death, the painting passed to his brother Theo and later to Van Gogh’s nephew Vincent Willem. By 2002, the painting had an estimated worth of around $3 million and was ensconced in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Perhaps emboldened by a 1991 heist at the museum, a group of thieves decided to target the museum. They set their sights on “View of the Sea at Scheveningen”.
The plan was a simple one. Several days before the robbery, the men stashed a ladder and a sledgehammer on the museum roof. Museum staff noticed the tools but assumed that they belonged there. At 7 a.m. on the morning of December 7, the thieves made their move. Acting quickly, the two men shimmied up the ladder and used the sledgehammer to break open a skylight. The sensors on the skylight instantly tripped the alarm. Moving swiftly, they snatched “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” and another nearby Van Gogh, “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen”. They then made their escape out of a small side window, using a rope to reach the street below. The theft might have ended there if the men hadn’t lost their hats in their hurry to escape. When the hats were analyzed, the DNA from hair follicles in the lining of one hat matched the DNA of a Dutch criminal named Octave Durham. After a dramatic trial, he and his partner were sentenced to several years in jail each. Despite their conviction, the two men maintained their innocence. Police believe that the men sold the paintings to a private collector as they had a huge influx of cash shortly after the robbery. Despite the efforts of law enforcement in numerous countries, neither painting has ever been found.
5. Poppy Flowers
Van Gogh is arguably the most famous painter of all time, so it is no surprise that his works are some of the most popular targets for art thieves. His 1887 still life “Poppy Flowers” is no exception. It has the distinction of having been stolen, not once, but twice from Egypt’s Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum.
“Poppy Flowers” was first cut from its frame in 1977 when the museum’s exhibits were housed in a temporary building after President Sadat decided to transform the original structure into luxurious living quarters. Two years later, “Poppy Flowers” was recovered in Kuwait. However, rumors swirled through the art world that the recovered painting was only a copy. More than 30 years later, the painting made headlines when a group of thieves decided to relive history by snatching it for themselves. Like many famous art thieves, the burglars took advantage of the distraction of a holiday, the holy month of Ramadan. Boldly entering the museum during the day, they cut the canvas out of its frame and fled. Not surprisingly, the museum’s security system was hopelessly out of date. The metal detectors and most of the security cameras were out of order. The subsequent investigation turned into a blame game, with different officials in the Ministry of Culture trying to pin the responsibility for the theft on each other. In the end, almost a dozen bureaucrats were charged with neglect. In spite of the governmental squabbling, the $50 million “Poppy Flowers” disappeared without a trace.
From relatively minor works worth only a few million to legendary masterpieces that are virtually priceless, the hunt for the world’s most wanted paintings never ceases. It’s a constant struggle between the cleverness of thieves and the tireless legwork of international law enforcement. Art aficionados look forward to the day when these great works will emerge again, ready to be displayed for all to enjoy.
About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, an avid reader. She wrote on contemporary and classical art in various print publications and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.