For centuries, art treasures have been highly coveted by criminals; the theft of valuable artwork remains a serious issue today. Art theft has often been glamorized in fiction, with criminal masterminds devising fiendishly sophisticated schemes to overcome tight security. However, history has shown that in real life it has sometimes proved surprisingly easy to steal the world’s most treasured works of art. Here are five infamous incidents of art theft from history.
The Last Judgement by Hans Memling
Stolen in 1473
Around 1467, a Florentine banker named Angelo Tani commissioned the Flemish painter Hans Memling to create a triptych (an artwork made up of three panels) as an altarpiece for the family chapel in Florence. The work took some six years to complete.
In April 1473, arrangements were made for the finished painting to be transported on board the galleon San Matteo from Bruges to its intended home. It never arrived there. In one of the first widely reported incidents of art theft, Memling’s The Last Judgement was snatched by a band of Polish pirates whilst en route to Italy.
Their leader was Paul Beneke, a privateer from Gdańsk, Poland. He was patrolling English waters as a result of an ongoing dispute between England and the Hanseatic League, of which the Polish port was a leading member. Upon spotting the San Matteo near the English coast, Beneke and his men boarded the vessel and the San Matteo’s cargo, including The Last Judgement, was transported home to the Polish port. The painting was presented to the city’s Saint Mary’s Church and put on display there.
The Last Judgement was never returned to the Tani family, despite several acrimonious lawsuits, and the painting’s notoriety subsequently made it a target of plunder for such diverse historical figures as Napoleon, the Nazis, and the Red Army. It is today in the collection of the National Museum in Gdańsk.
Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough
Stolen in 1876
In May 1876, Thomas Gainsborough’s late 18th-century portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, came up for auction at Christie’s in London and sold for a then-record price of 10,000 guineas (around $51,500). The purchaser was a London art dealer named William Agnew, who immediately put it on display at his Bond Street gallery.
The Duchess of Devonshire was stolen within a matter of days by Adam Worth, an American criminal mastermind. Assisted by two accomplices, Worth broke into the gallery in the middle of the night via a first floor window and made off with the painting. The American had already enjoyed a lucrative life of crime back home in the States. Such was the notoriety he acquired during his time in England that he was subsequently dubbed the “Napoleon of Crime” and was reportedly the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional arch-villain, Professor Moriarty.
Worth is reported to have been so enamored with the painting that instead of profiting handsomely from its sale on the black market, he decided to hold on to it for nearly a quarter of a century. It was only after a spell in prison during the 1890s that he returned to the USA and through an intermediary—William Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency—offered to return the painting to Agnew in return for a ransom of $25,000. The exchange took place in Chicago in March 1901 and Worth died less than a year later.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Stolen in 1911
In late August 1911, headlines were made across the world when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa went missing from the Louvre in Paris. Jaws dropped following the shocking discovery that one of the Louvre’s most famous exhibits had mysteriously disappeared overnight. The gallery officials who ended up losing their jobs were presumably not helped by the fact that, initially, nobody even noticed it was missing; and like all the Louvre’s priceless artworks, the Mona Lisa had not been bolted to the wall.
The hunt for the missing painting lasted more than two years. One early twist in the tale involved the arrest of Pablo Picasso. The Spanish painter had lived in Paris for over a decade and associated with a group of similarly avant-garde minded artistic friends, known collectively as la bande de Picasso. One member, Guillaume Apollinaire, became the police’s first chief suspect in the Mona Lisa case after admitting his involvement in an earlier theft of two sculptures from the Louvre. Picasso was also implicated in this earlier crime—he had even used the sculptures as inspiration for his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—and so he too came under suspicion. However, in the absence of any concrete evidence, the pair were soon cleared of any involvement in the Mona Lisa’s disappearance.
The real culprit, an Italian Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia, was eventually apprehended in December 1913. He is alleged to have smuggled the picture out of the gallery under his coat and then kept it hidden at his home in Paris for more than two years. He was only finally caught when he offered the Mona Lisa for sale to an art dealer in Florence.
At his trial, Peruggia claimed to have stolen the painting out of patriotism, wishing to see da Vinci’s famous masterpiece be returned to its rightful home in Italy. Peruggia’s alleged act of patriotism came at a price. He had demanded a fee of 500,000 Lire from the Italian art dealer, to whom he had offered the painting. Nevertheless, Peruggia was hailed as a hero by many of his countrymen and spent just seven months in prison.
Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Stolen in 1934
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was created for Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium around 1432 and is regarded by many art historians as the world’s first major oil painting. The van Eyck brothers’ 12-panelled masterpiece has been highly coveted ever since and has been targeted by thieves throughout its long history.
During the Napoleonic Wars, four of its central panels were stolen by French forces and sent to the Louvre, before eventually being returned following Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Soon afterwards, a rogue cleric sold some of the side panels to an art dealer in Berlin. During World War I, further panels were seized by German forces. Following the end of the war, all the panels were finally returned to Belgium and the Ghent Altarpiece was once more complete. Sadly, it did not remain intact for long.
On the night of April 10th, 1934, thieves broke into the Cathedral and stole a side panel depicting The Just Judges. A ransom note demanding one million Belgian Francs soon followed, but payment was not made. The culprits were never found and the panel remains missing to this day.
Subsequently, an art restorer named Jef van der Veken was commissioned to paint a replica panel. Such was the quality of painting on his copy, rumors circulated that the panel was, in fact, the original, cleverly restored to look like a replica. Recent scientific findings have tended to disprove this theory.
The Ghent Altarpiece was seized again by the Nazis during World War II, allegedly for its own protection. The real-life story of how the Allies faced a race against time to relocate and rescue this treasured masterpiece before it was destroyed by the Nazis was dramatized in the 2014 movie Monuments Men.
Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya
Stolen in 1961
50 years to the day after the infamous theft of the Mona Lisa, the portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya was stolen from the National Gallery in London, only days after going on display there for the first time. A thief was believed to have entered the gallery in the dead of night through a bathroom window, which he had previously left unlatched, and made off with the painting.
Earlier in the summer of 1961, a successful campaign had been waged to keep famous portrait in Britain after it had been purchased at auction by an American art collector for £140,000. The campaign had involved raising sufficient money to refund the buyer, which included a controversial grant of £40,000 from the British government.
Amidst fears that the painting might have been smuggled abroad, the police launched a manhunt to find the gang of art thieves responsible for the theft. The story was so well publicized that, in 1962, the Portrait of the Duke of Wellington even made a fictional appearance in the first James Bond film, where it's spotted in the underwater lair of the villain Dr. No. The real-life investigation took on a new complexion, however, when news agencies started to receive a series of handwritten ransom notes. These contained some unusual demands, such as the threat that the painting would be returned only when the government pledged to donate the original purchase price of £140,000 to charity.
Nearly four years after its disappearance, an anonymous tip led to the painting's discovery in the luggage office of Birmingham New Street Station. Soon afterwards, the man responsible turned himself in. The unlikely suspect was Kempton Bunton, a pensioner from Newcastle. During his subsequent trial at the Old Bailey, Bunton claimed that “my sole object in all this was to set up a charity to pay for television licences for old and poor people who seem to be neglected in our affluent society”.
Because of a loophole in the law (since tightened), Bunton was cleared of the theft of the painting and was found guilty only of stealing the frame, for which he was sentenced to three months in prison. Much speculation has ensued since as to whether Bunton was the real thief or if he was actually covering for his son. This extraordinary tale has been revisited in the recent movie, The Duke.