The Art of the Steal
by Michael Slenske
The Atlantic Monthly | April 2005
Have art thieves gotten bolder? Last summer's broad-daylight heist of Edvard Munch's The Scream from the Munch Museum, in Oslo, Norway, was the latest in a series of brazen thefts of high-profile artworks. And according to Interpol, trade in stolen cultural property now makes up one of the world's most lucrative black markets, after dealing in illicit arms and drugs. Operating in the spirit of its "Most Wanted" posters, the FBI—which has just assembled a new task force on art theft —posts pictures of stolen items on its Web site. Here are some of the more notable robberies of the past two decades, ranked according to the U.S. dollar value of the stolen goods.
1. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts (1990). Disguised as Boston cops responding to a (fake) disturbance call, two burglars handcuffed security guards to handrails to pull off the biggest art heist in U.S. history. With an estimated value of $300 million, the thieves' take included works by Rembrandt, Manet, and Vermeer.
2. Drumlanrig Castle, Thornhill, Scotland (2003). Two thieves posing as tourists overpowered their student guide at the Duke of Buccleuch's castle and lifted Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna With the Yardwinder, worth more than $150 million. The bandits opened a window, slid down the castle wall, told two New Zealand tourists outside that they were policemen practicing a drill, and made off in a beat-up VW.
3. Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway (2004). Two masked, armed villains pulled The Scream and Madonna off the museum walls as visitors watched; then they fled in a waiting car. The paintings together are valued at $74 million. Their frames were found not far from the museum.
4. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria (2003). In the space of fifty-four seconds Benvenuto Cellini's solid-gold Saliera—known as "the Mona Lisa of sculptures," and valued at roughly $65 million—was stolen by a bold thief. Though an alarm sounded, a museum guard turned it off, thinking it was false.
5. Esther Koplowitz residence, Madrid, Spain (2001). Three robbers blindfolded and gagged an apartment security guard before kicking in the door of a penthouse belonging to Spain's richest woman. The thieves absconded with more than $50 million worth of paintings and sculptures, including Goya's The Swing and Brueghel's The Temptation of Saint Anthony. All were eventually recovered.
6. Breitwieser's European spree (1995–2001). Stephane Breitwieser, a waiter, was arrested in Switzerland after pinching hundreds of pieces across Europe (with a total value of $14 million to $20 million) over the course of seven years. In an attempt to cover her son's tracks, Breitwieser's mother took a hammer and scissors to stolen paintings, and tossed vases and statues into a local canal; more than 100 items were later removed from the mud and restored.
7. New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2003). A year after the theft of Georgia O'Keeffe's Special No. 21 (valued at up to $1 million), investigators still don't know what happened. William Crumpton—a former security guard at Santa Fe's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, who is known to have attempted to steal her Red Canna from that museum during one of his graveyard shifts—admitted to stealing Special No. 21. But Crumpton later said—and a lie-detector test backed him up—that he had confessed only because he had been up for thirty hours and wanted to get some sleep.
8. Elvis-A-Rama Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada (2004). After thieves drove a stolen tow truck through the museum's back door, it took them only five minutes (using lead pipes) to smash the Plexiglas display cases housing $325,000 worth of Elvis's personal effects. Among them: a gold-plated handgun, a signature white scarf from his Hilton performance days, and a diamond "EP" pendant. Although the bandits made off with 80 percent of the Elvis jewelry on display, they no doubt drove straight to Heartbreak Hotel after realizing they had left behind the King's million-dollar blue suede shoes.