In 1473, Polish pirates boarded a ship that was en route to Florence. They walked away with Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement (1467–71), an intricately rendered triptych envisioning the second coming of Christ, and hauled it back to their homeland, in what is now considered the first recorded art heist. The painting today resides at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland, and Italians have been seeking its recovery ever since.
The Memling heist is an example of how significantly a theft can transform an artwork’s history forever—and it is hardly the only piece throughout history to have been permanently altered in this way. Although technology has gotten more sophisticated and the means by which heists are committed have changed, burglaries of the world’s greatest artworks continue to be executed often, effectively adding new and bizarre chapters to the annals of art history in the process.
The following list surveys the 25 greatest art heists of all time. They have concerned artworks from throughout art history, from centuries-old archaeological objects to contemporary masterworks, and they have involved a range of shadowy figures, from amateurs to security experts to possibly even organized crime syndicates. In some cases, the works have been recovered, while other heists have ended with the works being lost permanently.
For the sake of this list, heists were defined as concerning public institutions and private collections. Plundering, looting, and other forms of art theft will be considered in a separate list to follow.
Below, a look at the top 25 art heists of all time.