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.
A van Gogh goes missing at a Dutch museum shuttered by Covid (2020)
In March 2020, as Covid-19 lockdowns began around the world, most major museums in Europe and North America closed their doors to visitors. Amid the eerie quietude, there was a heist at the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands, where thieves walked off with a priceless early Vincent van Gogh painting. That work, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), had been on loan from another Dutch institution, the Groninger Museum, and it was removed by a robber who broke into the museum using a sledgehammer and got past various layers of security. That the unexpected theft took place against the backdrop of a pandemic seemed to be a sign that thieves were using the unsettling moment to their advantage. As of 2021, the van Gogh painting has not yet been found.
Unassuming Old Masters works are pilfered in London (1966)
The Guinness Book of World Records once labeled Rembrandt’s 1632 painting Jacob de Gheyn III the “Takeaway Rembrandt” because it had been stolen so many times. But before it was taken in 1973, 1981, and 1983, Jacob de Gheyn was taken in 1966 from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London by thieves who also removed works by Peter Paul Rubens, Gerard Dou, and Adam Elsheimer, along with two other Rembrandts. The thieves, one of whom was eventually convicted, had hoped to sell the work on the black market, but police recovered it not long after, and the painting is still on view at the museum today.
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.
A prized Klimt disappears from an Italian art gallery (1997)
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. In the letter, the men, who remain at large, said they ultimately returned the work “as a gift to the city.”
Poor security practices allow thieves to steal paintings from a São Paulo museum (2007)
We tend to think of art thieves as having to subvert highly complex security systems, but sometimes, heists become possible because those protection measures aren’t up to snuff. That was the case at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2007, when thieves entered the Brazilian institution using a hydraulic jack and a crow bar, just as guards were changing shifts, and walked off with paintings by Pablo Picasso and Cândido Portinari that were worth a collected $50 million at the time. The museum shut its doors for weeks after the heist, and the works were recovered after a suspect told authorities about a safehouse where the paintings were being kept. Two suspects were arrested in connection with the theft, for which they had tried to seek a hefty ransom from the museum’s president. After the heist, MASP pledged to beef up its security.
Missing artworks from a Manchester museum reappear in a decrepit toilet (2003)
A famed heist at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England, is remembered not for the works that were stolen (they were relatively minor) or for the drama surrounding them (the saga lasted only a few days), but for theft’s bizarre—and watery—conclusion. In 2003, thieves broken into the museum and stole paintings by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh, and stuffed them into a cardboard tube, which they then planted in a rundown toilet about 650 feet from the Whitworth. (The British press later dubbed that lavatory “the Loovre.”) When museum officials retrieved the tube, they noticed that it bore a message written by the thieves: “We didn’t intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security.” (The museum denied that its security was lacking.) The works—worth a collected £4 million in 2003—sustained minimal damage and were placed back on view shortly thereafter. The people who executed the theft have still not been identified.
Two early van Goghs are stolen from an Amsterdam museum (2002)
Vincent van Gogh’s work has been the subject of numerous high-profile heists—several of them appear on this list—though few generated quite as much press as one committed when the Amsterdam museum devoted to the Post-Impressionist was gearing up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth. In 2002, thieves stole two early paintings from the Vincent van Gogh Museum; they had entered the museum by using a 15-foot ladder and breaking through a window. It was unclear what had happened to the works until 2016, when Italian authorities uncovered them in a farmhouse near Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples. Police linked the thefts to the Camorra Mafia, and authorities arrested several traffickers in connection with the heist. As the works were unveiled once more to the public, Axel Rueger, the van Gogh Museum’s director, was beaming. “Needless to say, it’s a great day for us today,” he said.
Priceless Renaissance works are pilfered in Italy (1975)
Even though it did not have an electronic system at the time, the Ducal Palace in Urbino was considered one of Italy’s most secure art spaces—until it was robbed in 1975. That year, criminals took three Renaissance works by Raphael and Piero della Francesca, probably aiming to sell them on the international market. Shortly afterward, one man was arrested on suspicion of having been involved in the heist. Because the works are so valuable, and because they are so well-known, police figured that they wouldn’t be able to successfully peddle the works, and sure enough, the works were found the year after in Locarno, Switzerland. The masterpieces have since returned to the Ducal Palace and occasionally even traveled.
Valuable Francis Bacon paintings are taken from a Spanish collector’s home (2015)
While most heists on the list took place at museums, a few have also involved private collectors. One such case occurred in Madrid in 2015, when thieves broke into the house of José Capelo, who owned several paintings by his friend, the British artist Francis Bacon. While Capelo was away in London, the thieves stole five Bacon paintings worth €30 million ($33.3 million). Seven people were arrested in connection with the heist, and police recovered three of the five paintings in 2017. Even though Spanish police have kept most the details of the theft private, El País dubbed it “the greatest contemporary art heist in recent Spanish history.”
Romanian thieves claim to have burned works stolen from a Dutch museum (2012)
Many stolen works wind up either being found after years-long searches or are assumed to have to been lost, though it is rare when the plundered art actually gets destroyed. That, however, may have been the case when it came to a theft that took place at the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam in 2012 that involved thieves moving works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Lucian Freud out of the institution in just three minutes. Experts disagreed on the paintings’ worth, with estimates landing anywhere between $26 million and $100 million. Five were arrested in connection with the heist. The mother of the Romanian man who masterminded the heist later claimed she burned the works, though a forensic analysis of the ash was inconclusive. Some believe she may have been lying, and in 2018, two Dutch citizens claimed they found the Picasso.
An elaborate heist in Stockholm sets off an international chase (2000)
In 1993, three men committed Sweden’s biggest art heist at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where they took paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. (They were later recovered; three men were charged for the theft.) Seven years later, an even grander heist took place at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, where thieves armed with a submachine gun relied on a complex array of distractions to break into the museum, steal three works by Rembrandt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and get away safely. Police feared that the artworks, valued in 2000 at $30 million, would be swiftly departing eastern Europe, and a cinematic effort to halt any sale soon kicked off. In 2001, there was a surprise: police uncovered one of the Renoirs while doing an unrelated drug raid. And in 2005, while investigating a Bulgarian syndicate, international authorities caught criminals trying to sell the Rembrandt for $42 million and got that work back, too. Four were arrested while trying to make the purchase go through.
A giant Henry Moore sculpture is possibly lost forever after being stolen in England (2005)
Henry Moore’s monumental sculptures often involved tons of bronze transformed into amorphous forms that take on human-like qualities. That made one sculpture, titled Reclining Figure, a prime target for thieves looking to make use of a booming market for scrap metal resulting from rising demand in China. In 2005, thieves made off with the $18 million outdoor sculpture, which weighed a whopping two tons and was on view at the artist’s foundation in Hertfordshire, England. Why thieves took the work and where it could have ended up confused investigators for years, given the sculpture’s size and weight. Then, in 2009, British police revealed that they believed the work was no more, theorizing after a series of inquiries at local scrapyards that thieves had cut it up in the night, melted it down, and sold the transformed bronze for £1,500. “In my mind we’ve managed to kill off the mystery as much as is possible,” detective chief inspector John Humphries told the Guardian. The people who allegedly destroyed the Moore work were never caught.
Members of the IRA steal priceless artworks from a British politician (1974)
Sometimes, a heist is not just a heist, but also a political happening. That was the case when, in 1974, members of the Irish Republican Army banded together to rob Russborough House, the Irish home of Sir Albert Beit, a British politician. Having tied up Beit, they took $20 million in art by Johannes Vermeer, Francisco Goya, and Peter Paul Rubens, which they later held out for ransom and were hoping to exchange for the release of IRA members who had been imprisoned for car bombings. Bridget Rose Dugdale, the daughter of a British millionaire, was later sentenced to nine years in prison after three paintings were found in her cottage. Pleading “proudly and incorruptibly guilty” in court, Dugdale said that the theft was a protest against the British government’s desire “to deprive us of our freedom to fight for Ireland and the freedom of the Irish people.” Some of the works Dugdale pilfered were stolen once again, for reasons of a less activist nature, in 1986, 2000, and 2001.
Thieves take $1.2 billion in jewelry from a famed Dresden museum (2019)
The Dresden jewelry heist, one of the largest art thefts ever committed, took place largely over the course of a single minute. At 4 a.m., thieves cut the power at the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) museum and made off with riches that have been valued at a collected $1.2 billion by smashing an axe into a glass display case. Among the works stolen are some of the most famous jewelry objects in the world—including a sword encrusted with 800 diamonds and the 49.84-carat Dresden White Diamond. By the end of 2020, four were arrested for the heist, though German police were still on the hunt for the jewels, which were still not recovered by the start of 2021. In January of that year, one security firm floated a theory that criminals were trying to sell the jewels on the dark web.
The Scream is stolen in broad daylight at the Munch Museum (2004)
If most heists take place in the wee hours of the morning, while institutions are closed, this heist unfolded in a decidedly different manner, in broad view of the general public. Amid tourists ogling at nearby masterpieces in the the Munch Museum in Oslo, thieves took The Scream (1910) and Madonna (1894) by the Norwegian Expressionist in 2004. It wasn’t the first time a version of The Scream had been stolen, but it was, in some ways, more daring because of the throngs of people that were around when the thieves held guards at gunpoint and then departed in a black station wagon. Rumors swirled about what happened afterward. Were the paintings burned? Was the mob involved? In the end, the paintings were recovered in 2006, six arrests were made, and the works went back to the Munch Museum.
A priceless Caravaggio is cut from its frame in Italy (1969)
On a dark and stormy night in 1969, thieves entered the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy, and walked away with Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, a dramatic scene that once hung above an altar. (Experts have dated it to 1600 or 1609.) In the years since, a plethora of theories have been floated about what may have happened to the work. They range from the feasible (the Mafia may have been involved) to the tragic (it was perhaps burned) to the bizarre (mice or pigs could have eaten it). Experts assumed it was lost forever until 2017, when Italy’s anti-Mafia commission reopened the case with a new lead involving a now-deceased Swiss art dealer who advised the thieves to cut up the canvas, since no one would purchase a work so famous. As of 2021, the search for the work continues on.
A Benvenuto Cellini masterpiece is stolen in Vienna by a security expert (2003)
The Saliera, a 1543 golden salt cellar sculpture featuring Land and Sea presiding over their riches, is the sole work attributed to Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini. That made it all the more saddening when, in 2003, a thief removed it from its case at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, setting off an alarm that a guard misconstrued as an accident. Wilfried Seipel, the museum’s director at the time, called the theft of the $60 million artwork a “catastrophe.” In 2006, after two attempts to receive a $12 million ransom for the work, Robert Mang, a security expert who specialized in alarm systems, was found to be the thief. He then led investigators to a forest outside Vienna, where he had buried the Saliera in a lead box, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Faulty security enables thieves to steal a van Gogh still life in Giza (2010)
It should not have been so easy to steal Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers, an 1887 still life that was held by the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza, Egypt. Just nine visitors came to the museum on the day it was cut from its frame and secreted out of the institution. The reason the thieves had been so successful was simple: the painting’s alarm didn’t work, and neither did any of the other alarms on any of the works in the museum, for that matter. After the culture minister retracted a claim that the work had been found in a Cairo airport, the theft began wreaking havoc in Egypt. Eleven culture ministry workers resigned, and several guards at the museum were arrested. Valued at anywhere between $50 million and $55 million, the painting remains missing as of 2021.
A heist in Frankfurt leads to a windfall for the Tate (1994)
Insurance—never a sexy topic when it comes to museums—played a key role in the fallout from a theft at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle in 1994. After two guards were bound and gagged, thieves removed two J. M. W. Turner paintings on loan from the Tate in London and one Caspar David Friedrich painting on loan from the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Although two thieves and a dealer were arrested soon after the heist, the search for the missing paintings took more than a decade to complete. In 2000, investigators said that the Turners were being held by a Serbian gang. Then, in 2002, the Tate revealed that it had, in fact, secretly retrieved the Turners—and made £38 million in the process, thanks to an insurance gambit. (Sandy Nairne, a program director at Tate, recounted the eight-year negotiation process in a 2011 book.) Meanwhile, the Kunsthalle Hamburg got its Friedrich back in 2003 via a lawyer who coordinated with the thieves. In the end, three men were convicted for the theft of the Turners, and two men who gave the thieves the keys to the museum were acquitted.
The Scream is stolen in Oslo during the Winter Olympics (1994)
“Thousand thanks for the bad security!” read a note left behind the thieves. Not to be confused with the 2004 heist of a different version of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece (which also ranks on this list), this theft involved thieves breaking into the National Museum in Oslo, snapping the wire that held The Scream to a wall, and departing with the famed painting. The action took place against the backdrop of the opening festivities for the 1994 Winter Olympics, which took place in Lillehammer, about two hours north of the capital city.
Immediately, the heist became a sensation within Norway, where anti-abortion activists claimed they could have the painting returned in exchange for national television airing a commercial geared to their interests. (They were lying—they didn’t know where the painting was.) The search for the painting lasted almost two years, with the government denying to pay a $1 million ransom because it was believed to be a disingenuous offer. The Scream was ultimately found in a hotel in a city north of Oslo. In 1996, four men were convicted in connection with the heist.
Amateurs take 124 beloved artifacts from a Mexican archaeological museum (1985)
You don’t necessarily have to be a professional to pull off a major caper, as this heist goes to show. In 1985, two college dropouts linked to a drug ring stole 124 artifacts—including a priceless jade death mask representing a Mayan ruler—from the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City. That two amateurs were able to pull off such a heist was mainly due to the intense preparation they’d done—they canvased the museum more than 50 times ahead of actually executing the theft, which involved crawling through an air conditioning duct. Once authorities caught the two culprits, it was discovered that some of the artifacts were nearly traded for cocaine. The theft continues to hold a special place in the public imagination because of the thieves’ lack of expertise, and in 2018, the heist provided the inspiration for Museo, a feature film in which Gael García Bernal played one of the burglars.
Impressionist masterpieces are taken from a Paris museum as the public looks on (1985)
The artwork that gave its name to the Impressionist art movement was stolen from Paris’s Musée Marmottan in 1985, in one of the most daring heists ever committed anywhere. The thieves who stole the work entered in broad daylight, having bought tickets like everyone else, and they took Claude Monet’s iconic 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, along with works by Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Nine guards and 40 visitors were held at gunpoint as some of the works were yanked from gallery walls. Although the nine stolen works were valued at $20 million, some said that Impression, Sunrise was priceless. In 1990, all nine works were recovered at a villa in Corsica, and seven people were arrested.
'Spider-Man' steals five masterpieces from a Paris museum (2010)
The theft of five major works of modern art from Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in 2010 was so slick, it drew comparisons to Arsène Lupin, the fictional thief of French pulp fame, and Spider-Man, whose name became the moniker by which the burglar who committed the heist ended up being known. That year, Vjeran Tomic returned repeatedly to the museum, spraying an acid on a window that allowed him to enter seamlessly. One night, at 3 a.m., he stole Henri Matisse’s Pastorale (1905). Then, because the alarms didn’t go off, he also took works by Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. Tomic is believed to have been working on commission for a dealer named Jean-Michel Corvez, who wanted to sell them. Once caught, Tomic was sentenced to eight years in prison by a judge who said that the theft involved taking “cultural goods belonging to humankind’s artistic heritage.”
Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre by an Italian handyman (1911)
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be the most well-known artwork in the world—and an art heist is one of the reasons its fame was cemented. Few had cared much about the painting until 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman, and two of his compatriots spent the night in a closet at the Louvre and then scurried away with the work, taking it with them on a train that departed Paris on a Sunday morning. The matter became one of international intrigue, and soon enough, it became too difficult to sell the work—no one would buy an artwork that was receiving so much attention. Peruggia proceeded to stash it away under the floorboards of his Paris apartment, only to try again, 28 months later, to peddle the work, this time to a dealer from Florence. Peruggia believed that he was aiding in cultural repatriation—he thought that Napoleon had plundered a prime piece of Italian heritage and was determined to give it back to his homeland. (Leonardo had been working on the painting in France, and upon his death in 1519, King Francis I bought it.) The Florentine dealer then phoned Uffizi Galleries director Giovanni Poggi, who took the work, claiming he was going to keep it safe, and called the police. Peruggia only ended up spending seven months in jail.
History’s greatest art heist occurs at a Boston museum (1990)
In the early morning, on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, subduing guards who were watching the Boston institution’s grounds at night. In the hours that followed, the thieves walked away with riches of almost incalculable art-historical value: The Concert (ca. 1664), one of just 34 known Vermeer paintings; a 1633 Rembrandt painting featuring a boat navigating stormy waters; a Manet painting of a mysterious man in a café. The FBI has said the works, which are still missing as of 2021, are valued at a collected $500 million. Because so much mystery surrounds the case, the heist continues to capture the minds of many, with some suggesting that the mob was involved, or that the guards were in on it, or that the works have indeed been destroyed. (The heist was the subject a 2018 10-part investigation podcast, Last Seen, by Boston’s WBUR.) Today, officials at the museum are unsure about the works’ whereabouts. In 2020, curator Ronni Baer told WBUR, “I wish I could somehow comfort myself in knowing they’re somewhere, but I don’t know if they still exist.”