Art has played a significant role throughout human history - but so has art theft. Art heists have been rampant around the world ever since artwork first became incredibly valuable. This list explores the most outrageous art thefts throughout history.
These crooks lifted millions of dollars' worth of art and they composed a number of shrewd plans to do so. Some of them used force, while others used distractions like fireworks and alarms or global emergencies. One man even replaced over 100 pieces of famous art with his own paintings and drawings. Another simply walked out of a museum with a renowned painting stuffed inside his coat. Some of the pieces have since been found, but most of them have never been recovered.
Frans Hals's 'Two Laughing Boys With a Mug of Beer' Was Stolen Three Times
Dutch artist Frans Hals's 17th-century painting "Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer," worth about $18 million, was stolen from the Hofje van Aerden museum in Leerdam, Netherlands, not once, not twice, but three times: in 1988, 2011, and 2020.
The painting was recovered after the first two incidents. But despite tighter security measures put in place after theft No. 2, thieves managed to break in again through a door early in the morning on August 26, 2020. Although the culprits set off alarms, they managed to escape.
Art detective Arthur Brand told the BBC, "It's very difficult to secure small museums as it costs too much money. If they want to have your stuff, they'll get in."
In April 2021, authorities from the Netherlands announced they had detained an unnamed suspect in the 2020 incident. The 58-year-old man, nabbed at his home in Baarn, is also suspected of taking a Van Gogh painting from the Singer Laren Museum in 2020. The paintings were not found.
Thieves Dropped In Through The Roof To Nab Two Van Gogh Paintings From A Museum
In the winter of 2002, two crooks lifted Van Gogh's "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" and "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen" from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They entered the premises through the roof, and managed to obscure their faces from the security cameras. Two suspects were detained and later convicted in 2004.
The paintings were found in 2016 in a farmhouse on property owned by alleged Italian crime boss and fugitive Raffaele Imperiale. In August 2021, Imperiale was detained in connection to the thefts, with Italian authorities saying in a statement that they had brought "to justice a leading exponent of international drug trafficking and money laundering who has accumulated considerable illicit assets mainly through the sale of cocaine.” Among those illicit assets were the two paintings, authorities said.
Earlier in 2021, Imperiale said in an interview with the newspaper Il Mattino that he had nothing to do with taking the paintings: "I bought them directly from the thief because the price was attractive... But most of all because I love art."
A British Crook Used Fireworks And Smoke To Swipe A $5 Million Painting
While everyone else was celebrating the coming of the new millennium on the night of December 31, 1999, one British crook successfully nabbed a painting worth nearly $5 million. The incident took place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.
The offender broke into the museum while the entire city was distracted by loud fireworks. He cut a hole in the museum's roof and dropped down using a rope ladder. Once inside, he released smoke to obfuscate himself from the cameras. This painting by Paul Cezanne has never been recovered.
A Librarian Replaced 125 Paintings With His Own
In the course of only two years - from 2004 to 2006 - a chief librarian at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts gradually replaced 125 paintings with his own works of art. Xiao Yuan sold the pieces at various auctions for a total of $6 million. When he was caught, he still had another $11 million worth of stolen art in his possession.
While confessing, Xiao defended himself by claiming that such deceptive thievery was extremely common in the art community. He even claimed that unknown artists had replaced his fakes with their own fakes.