Fine art and organised crime go hand in hand.
Unsurprisingly, this article comes after I watched This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, a new documentary on Netflix that investigates the mysterious (and still unsolved) case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in 1990. The docu-series recounts the night 13 famous paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Vermeer (valued at a collective $500 million) were cut violently from their frames at the Boston museum and disappeared forever into the black market. Or so the story goes. Stealing is a naughty thing to do, but it’s pretty impressive that people have been able to pull this kind of thing off in real life outside of the Bond and the Oceans franchises. Let’s look back at some of the wildest 21st-century art heists.
Van Gogh painting goes missing during lockdown, Singer Laren Museum, Netherlands 2020
While we were going about our business at the start of the pandemic making sourdough, ~wfh~, rocking back and forth sobbing etc., robbers were still out and about doing their thing, making the most of widespread, Covid-induced closures. Like in the Netherlands, when during the early hours of March 30th, 2020, an art thief pulled up to the Singer Laren Museum on a motorcycle (v on brand) and proceeded to smash his way through layers of protective window glass with a sledgehammer.
Conveniently captured on CCTV cameras, the thief can be seen moving swiftly through the museum, whipping in and then out, taking with him Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, 1884, which is worth millions. Although any arrests are yet to be made, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand is on the case and is said to have received two photographs that prove the artwork is still out there, somewhere. To be continued.
Spiderman Art Thief, Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, France 2010
You know you’ve made it as a criminal when the media gives you a nickname. For skilled climber and thief Vjeran Tomic, ‘Spider-Man’ was an apt moniker for someone who spent his childhood in Père Lachaise scaling gravestones and cemetery walls with his friends in preparation to rob apartment buildings. Describing his way of stealing as ‘intuitive,’ Tomic’s first heist was at age 10, when he broke into a library in Mostar by climbing through a window that was nearly ten feet above street level, taking two several hundred-year-old books.
At age 49, he pulled off his generation’s biggest art heist. It was Tomic’s spiritual connection to fine art that eventually led him to this robbery, entering a manic state that made him swipe a Matisse, a Picasso, a Braque, a Léger, and a Modigliani from the Musée d’Art Moderne in 2010. On May 14th, Tomic began working on a window of the museum, using a black sheet of cloth as a curtain, a task that took six nights—why rush, right? Then in the early morning of May 20th, he entered the museum, leaving briefly to see if the alarms would go off (alarms that had been waiting to be fixed for several weeks at the time), then returned. Originally intending to take just one painting, he ended up leaving with five worth more than €100 million. Tomic was arrested in May 2011 and jailed for eight years. As for the paintings, they’re still missing and are thought to have been destroyed.
$30 Million worth of art stolen from Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden, 2000
Every good crime has a decoy and for this art heist, it came in the way of explosions. In 2000, burglars blew up cars in various parts of Stockholm city to distract police from an armed robbery at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Three raiders entered the museum on December 22nd at about 5:15 pm; while one armed with a submachine gun set about terrifying and threatening museum-goers and staff in the lobby (the serenity!), another two ran upstairs to grab three artworks worth a collective $31.46 million.
Clearly preempted, the thieves took only what they could carry and focussed on small-scale works they could tuck under their arms, including a self-portrait by the Dutch master Rembrandt and two works by the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Escaping in style, they tore away in a small speedboat from the institution’s waterfront locale. Thankfully, by 2005 the paintings were all returned safely.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream gets stolen during the Winter Olympics, National Museum, Oslo 1994
I don’t know about you, but to me, sass is a defining quality of any good crim. You have to own your behaviour 110%. So you can imagine my delight when I read that in 1994, two art thieves left behind a hand-written note that read: ‘Thousand thanks for the bad security!’ when they stole Edvard Munch’s The Scream from the National Museum in Oslo. That’s sass. But honestly, it did sound kind of easy. People love the Olympics (almost to the point of derangement, tbh) and the sporty festivities provided the perfect distraction for a cheeky little art heist.
Breaking into the museum, the thieves snapped the wire that held the paintings to a wall, literally nothing else, and departed with it. Easy does it. Until anti-abortion activists became involed, that is, claiming they knew where the painting was and would tell authorities in exchange for airing a commercial that touted their twisted argument. Turns out they didn’t and the search lasted two years, with the government denying to pay a $1 million ransom because they didn’t think it was legitimate. Finally, The Scream was recovered in a sting operation, found in a hotel in a city north of Oslo. In 1996, four men were convicted in connection with the heist. What a ride.