Art heists in European museums mainly belong to the world of mystery. Museums that were their victims rarely speak about art thefts. On the other hand, people get fascinated by them. Who would dare steal millions of Euros worth of artworks? And why? To unsolve a bit of that mystery, here is an article about some of the most intriguing art heists in European museums.
1. Royal jewellery in Green Vault Museum, Dresden (2019)
This art heist happened recently, and although the responsible for it were arrested, the art pieces they stole haven’t been recovered yet.
A few minutes before breaking into the museum, a group of thieves damaged the electricity power in the building, disabling the alarm that way. They cut off the bars on windows then, smashed the glass and got into the building through a window.
They took some of the most precious Royal jewellery in the world, estimated to be worth around 128 million euros. However, the ultimate worth is hard to evaluate due to their historical and cultural value.
Although in 2021, six men were charged for the robbery, the jewellery hasn’t been returned yet. Since the jewellery is easy to melt, the museum officials bagged thieves not dismantling the art pieces.
2. 18 paintings are stolen in Canada’s largest art heist (1972)
It had the setup of a Hollywood thriller: At 2 a.m., thieves entered the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of Canada’s most important museums, through a skylight, and bound and gagged three guards. Soon after, they made off with 39 jewelry objects and 18 paintings, including ones by Delacroix, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
The museum had been doing repairs on the skylight, which meant that thieves had been studying the MMFA, looking for an entry point for the heist. All told, the objects they stole—none of which have been found—were worth in $2 million in 1972; the Rembrandt alone was worth $1 million. In 2003, the Globe and Mail estimated that the Rembrandt painting was worth 20 times that sum and suggested that the Montreal mafia may have been involved.
3. Musée Marmottan – Monet, Paris (1985)
Another art heist in European museums looking like a Hollywood movie plot happened in a peaceful Paris’ Musée Marmottan – Monet. On Sunday morning, five thieves armed with guns got into it during the opening hours. They threatened the visitors and museum guards and told them to lay on the floor.
Meanwhile, they took some of the Impressionists’ masterpieces from that museum. They stole nine paintings created by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Seiichi Naruse. The most famous among them was Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’.
The paintings were recovered five years later, after a member of the Japanese mafia involved in a robbery was arrested. They were found in a villa in Corsica and returned to the museum.
4. The Case of the Mona Lisa
If you’ve ever been to the famous Louvre in Paris and seen Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” you will probably have a difficult time imagining how someone could steal such a famous and well guarded piece that constantly has so many eyes on it. Yet, in 1911 Vincenzo Perugia achieved the seemingly impossible and managed to steal the most famous painting in the world.
Perugia, a former employee of the Louvre, had an especially interesting motive for stealing the “Mona Lisa”. Since da Vinci was an Italian artist, Perugia felt that the painting should be returned home to Italy. To years later Perugia was caught trying to sell the painting to an Italian who called the police on him. The painting was later returned to its home in the Louvre where it has remained since 1913.
5. Picasso’s artworks at Palais des Papes
One of the most significant art heists in European museums happened in the Papal Palace in Avignon in 1976. This was when 119 artworks by Pablo Picasso were stolen from the exhibition organised there. Three armed men entered the museum in the evening, threatened the guards and left the museum with the stolen art pieces.
Luckily, all the stollen artworks by Picasso were found later that year. And all seven criminals involved in this art heist have been arrested.
6. A prized Klimt disappears from an Italian art gallery
Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady (1916–17) is considered key by scholars because it was the only known work which the Austrian artist painted over it midway through working on it—yet historians couldn’t see the $60 million painting for more than two decades because it had effectively disappeared.
In 1997, the painting went missing during preparations for a show at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Piacenza, Italy, and it wasn’t until December 2019, when the work resurfaced, that its whereabouts became known. The year before, a gardener was pruning ivy at the gallery when, much to his surprise, he discovered the work, half-hidden in a trash bag behind a panel in the building.
Two men who are believed to be connected to other Italian art heists later confessed in a letter to an Italian journalist to having stolen the Klimt, which they said they concealed in the gallery’s exterior four years after having pilfered it.