5 Stolen Masterpieces That Were Later Recovered
Nothing sparks the public imagination in quite the same way as an art heist. It conjures images of a mysterious, underground world, inhabited by shady buyers and sophisticated thieves.
According to The Guardian, the world’s first recorded art crime was perpetrated in 1473. Polish pirates stole a triptych from a church in Florence, Italy, taking it to Gdansk, Poland, where it remains to this day.
Although many stolen masterpieces have disappeared without trace, not all art thefts have an unhappy ending. In this article, we look at five world-famous works of art that were stolen and later recovered.
1. Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer (Frans Hals)
Painted by the Dutch master in 1626, criminals have targeted this work of art three times in total.
In 1988, a masked gunman stole the painting following an armed standoff with a museum guard. He left the museum with two paintings: the Frans Hals piece, and Forest View with Flowering Elderberry by Jacob Salomonsz van Ruysdael. In 1991, the NYPD recovered Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer following the death of Dutch criminal Klaas Bruinsma, who had unlawfully acquired the painting.
Thieves targeted the painting again in 2011. It was subsequently recovered after four men attempted to sell it back to the museum.
The most recent theft was perpetrated at the Hofje van Aerden museum in Leerdam, Netherlands, on August 26, 2020, when thieves broke into the museum in the middle of the night. By the time the alarm sounded, they had reputedly already disappeared with the world-famous painting, which art experts value at approximately $18 million. Following the third theft, the painting seems to have vanished without trace, although no doubt museum officials will be praying for a third miracle.
2. The Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci)
Arguably the world’s most recognizable painting, art experts believe da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa while living in Florence, sometime between 1503 and 1519. The sitter’s mysterious smile and unproven identity have fascinated art enthusiasts for centuries. Today, it hangs in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
In 1911, the museum hired Vincenzo Perugia to install protective glass cases around some of its most valuable works of arts, apparently oblivious of the fact that the Italian handyman had a history of petty crime. One day, Perugia hid inside a closet, waiting until all the museum staff went home. The next morning, Vincenzo Perugia casually walked out of the Louvre when it reopened, having removed The Mona Lisa from its frame and hidden it on his person.
In 1913, Perugia assumed the pseudonym “Leonardo Vincenzo,” approaching an art dealer in Florence called Alfredo Geri. They agreed to meet, the thief bringing along the magnum opus, hiding in a false bottom in his trunk. Geri managed to persuade him to leave the painting in his trust so that he could seek a specialist opinion. Alfredo Geri subsequently reported the theft to the authorities and Vincenzo Perugia was taken into custody.
3. The Head of a Woman (Pablo Picasso)
Stolen from Athens National Gallery in 2012, the painting was originally believed to have been taken by two notorious art thieves. Officials discovered later that a 49-year-old builder had actually perpetrated the crime. He stole a second work by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian at the same time. The robber removed the pieces from their frames in a dawn incursion that took less than 10 minutes to complete.
4. The Scream (Edvard Munch)
Taken with another Munch painting, Madonna, from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in 2004, The Scream was stolen from a museum packed with visitors by armed robbers. The 2004 theft was perpetrated by three armed thieves who were convicted in 2006. Munch’s The Scream and Madonna were both recovered with minor marks and tears.
A decade earlier, another version of the iconic piece was stolen in under a minute by two art thieves. They broke through a window, cutting a wire holding the piece to the wall. The thieves actually had the audacity to leave a note reading “Thousand thanks for the bad security!”
5. Jacob de Gheyn III (Rembrandt)
Having earned the moniker “the takeaway Rembrandt” due to the number of times it had been stolen, the painting was taken from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 1966, 1973, 1981, and 1983. Today, Jacob de Gheyn III features in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most stolen painting.
Thieves targeted Dulwich Picture Gallery yet again in November 2019, when criminals tried to remove two paintings from a Rembrandt exhibition. Thankfully the theft was detected by museum’s security systems.
This triggered immediate intervention by security staff and a swift response from London Metropolitan Police. It is unknown which paintings the criminals targeted, but security reportedly recovered both within the gallery grounds.