Art heists on the silver screen are typically carried out by dashing criminal masterminds who are as charming as they are skillful. In films like To Catch a Thief, Ocean’s Twelve, and The Thomas Crown Affair, this “gentleman thief” character displays stealth and an appreciation for the art they’re after. But in real life, America’s greatest art heist was a clumsy smash-and-grab job at a Boston museum: Masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer were sliced from their frames with knives after being thrown on the floor to shatter their protective glass. But the unsophisticated bandits also nabbed more trivial objects, like a Chinese vase, while completely overlooking the museum’s most valuable piece.
“These people are not glamorous—they’re not looking like Pierce Brosnan or Cary Grant. In reality, these people often have connections to organized crime,” explains Leila Amineddoleh (CAS ’02), an art and cultural law attorney who teaches in NYU’s Department of Art History. But while it’s not uncommon for criminal organizations to try to traffic art as a form of currency, attempting to resell pilfered works can prove more difficult than the theft itself. “Once it’s stolen, you can’t sell it at Christie’s or Sotheby’s,” says Amineddoleh, noting that because a thief cannot pass good title, the art often ends up being destroyed instead.
Her undergraduate course, Art Crime and the Law, explores the looters, forgers, thieves, and vandals of the art world—and recently culminated with the first exhibition through the Kimmel Galleries’ Curatorial Labs, a cross-disciplinary program that facilitates exhibitions developed by students. The show delved into art crime’s multibillion-dollar industry, which reflects the escalating value of art on the market.
“You see auction numbers that hit the front page of newspapers,” says Amineddoleh, citing the record-setting Picasso that sold for $179 million. “The prices are just soaring, and I think that attracts more people to committing these crimes, trying to make a fortune and get away with it.”
Here, Amineddoleh takes us through some of the forgeries, lootings, vandalisms, and museum heists that have made (art) history.
Click each work to learn its story:
When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, there were no alarms to sound. It took 28 hours before anyone noticed it was missing at all, and even then no one panicked because the museum was in the process of photographing its works. But the painting hadn’t been removed for cataloging—it was stuffed under the smock of a handyman and carried off through the back door. When the disappearance was finally realized, the scandal flooded newspapers around the world. Suddenly, mobs of people were clamoring to see the empty space on the museum wall. Up until then, the painting was considered significant by art historians but wasn’t well known by the general public. “[The theft] did make the work extremely famous—more famous than it would have been had it not been stolen,” Amineddoleh explains. “The Mona Lisa was missing for about two and a half years, and during that time the whole world was looking for it.” Finally, a man named Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested after trying to sell the painting to a Florentine art dealer with connections to the Uffizi Gallery. Though he was found guilty, Peruggia only served eight months in prison. “He had misplaced patriotism,” Amineddoleh says of the thief. “Da Vinci had brought the painting with him to France, but this Italian man thought it belonged in Italy. So he was seen as sympathetic and someone who loved his culture.” On January 4, 1914, the Renaissance masterpiece was returned to the Louvre with a newfound fame, and it is now valued up to $1 billion.
Edvard Munch created four different versions of his iconic painting The Scream, all of which have been coveted by buyers and thieves alike. While the pastel version sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $120 million, two others were stolen within the span of a decade. The first was taken from an exhibition connected with the Winter Olympics on opening day in 1994, when bandits broke through a window of the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. “They climbed a ladder, took the work off the wall, and left a little note saying thanks for the poor security,” Amineddoleh says. But the thieves were arrested just three weeks later after demanding a $1 million ransom. The second theft, from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004, was even more brazen: Two men wearing black ski masks threatened a guard at gunpoint and ordered tourists to the floor, then grabbed the painting and fled in a getaway car. This time it took two years before police were able to recover The Scream, with surprisingly minimal damage. The daring daytime robbery helped spur stronger security efforts, and it was listed as one of the “Crimes of the Century” by Time magazine.
In 1885, Czar Alexander III commissioned imperial goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé to create a lavishly intricate Easter gift for the Empress, which she so loved that it became an annual tradition, and the now-famous Fabergé eggs were born. The craftsman made a total of 50 bejeweled Easter eggs—each taking more than a year to create with tiny surprises hidden inside—before the royal family was overthrown and executed during the Russian Revolution of 1917, making the precious jewels property of the state. The imperial eggs were locked away in the Kremlin Armory until Stalin liquidated such artistic treasures to fund Russia’s industrialization. Since then, 42 of the Fabergé eggs have ended up in various museums and private collections, including that of the British royal family, but the other eight had seemingly vanished. So in 2015 when a scrap metal dealer purchased a three-inch gold egg at a flea market in the American Midwest, he had no reason to suspect that it was a missing Fabergé—and even planned to melt it down for parts. Luckily, he couldn’t find a buyer, so the egg remained intact long enough for experts to prove that his find was actually the Third Imperial Easter Egg, worth an estimated $33 million.
Nine years ago in the Indian village of Suthamalli, a Hindu priest climbed the stone steps of the Varadharaja Perumal Temple to pray. But when he lit his candle, he discovered that all the ancient idols were gone—the temple had been ransacked. India’s subsequent investigation led to a well-known Manhattan art dealer named Subhash Kapoor, who was revealed to be the mastermind of a $107.6 million antiquities smuggling ring for more than 30 years. Through his Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past, Kapoor sold the looted antiquities to major museums, including the Met, and auction houses around the world. “It’s really common for antiquities to go through customs and for someone to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t something valuable, it’s just a trinket I got in a bazaar in Egypt, of course this isn’t real,’ ” Amineddoleh says. “Art is a currency that is not illegal per se in itself, the way cocaine or heroin would be, because having art on you is not [inherently] illegal.” For decades, Kapoor evaded suspicion by forging documents and creating false provenances until finally Indian officials tipped off US Homeland Security to some mislabeled crates en route to New York. American authorities ultimately seized more than 3,000 pounds of ancient contraband—a staggering 2,622 items in total—making Kapoor the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in US history. He is now serving a 14-year sentence in a Chennai jail.
When robbers used a sledgehammer to break into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam back in 2002, there were virtually no leads for the authorities to follow. For the next 14 years, it seemed the stolen paintings, Seascape at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (above), were lost for good. But when members of the Italian Mafia were arrested for drug trafficking, one of them provided information on the possible whereabouts of the missing paintings. In September 2016, Italian police followed the new clues to a farmhouse outside Pompeii, where the stashed masterpieces—valued at a combined $30 million—were wrapped in cloth. Amineddoleh says it’s rare for such plunder to be recovered; in fact, estimates show that as little as 5 percent of all stolen artwork is returned to its original owners.
When Hans van Meegeren began forging works by renowned artist Johannes Vermeer in 1936, he didn’t just create replicas of paintings like Girl with a Pearl Earring (above right). Instead, the crafty forger passed his own creations off as newly discovered works by the 17th-century artist, whose canon was sparse enough for missing paintings to be entirely plausible (even today there exist only 35 undisputed Vermeers). Van Meegeren made imposters like Woman Reading Music (above left) seem valid by including hallmarks of Vermeer’s paintings and imitating his light atmospheric chiaroscuro technique. To age the paintings by 300 years, he baked them in a pizza oven—which required inventing a paint mixture that could withstand the heat by adding an early form of plastic—then used a rolling pin to create cracks in the canvas. Eventually, van Meegeren no longer even needed to evoke Vermeer because it was enough that the paintings resemble his own successful forgeries. “At first the works that he created looked very much like Vermeers, but over time he started inserting more and more of his own style, which really changed the conception of Vermeer’s art,” Amineddoleh explains. “Luckily, he was caught, so the scholarship wasn’t changed permanently. But there could still be other forgers who haven’t been caught and have altered our conception about an artist and changed art history.”
On May 21, 1972, visitors at the Vatican were stunned when a deranged man attacked Michelangelo’s famed Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica with a rock hammer. Throughout the assault, he repeatedly shouted, “I am Jesus Christ!” before finally being dragged away from the treasured statue, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion. The marble was severely damaged, chipping Mary’s eyelid and sustaining major blows to her nose and left arm. While criminal charges were never pursued against the assailant, an Italian court sentenced him to two years in a mental institution after deeming him a “socially dangerous person.” The statue was restored, but Amineddoleh notes that there can sometimes be controversy when it comes to preserving vandalized art. “There’s a feeling that you can try to recreate what was there before but it’s not the original object, there’s no way to bring that back,” she explains. “The other side of the debate is that if you can restore it, then why not? And I think the Pietà is a great example of that. I mean of course you need to restore the Pietà—it’s so beautiful, how can you not want to see it in its original state?”
Caravaggio’s Renaissance masterpiece Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco once loomed above the altar at the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. But on October 17, 1969, the $20 million painting was cut from its frame and has never resurfaced, making it one of the oldest unsolved art crimes on the FBI’s top 10 list. “Churches don’t have security like a museum because people go in there to pray—alarms are not going off in churches if you’re near an altar or piece of art,” Amineddoleh says. “So thefts from churches are common because those sites are easier to loot.” While a valuable part of history has been lost, the theft did spur the creation of Italy’s Carabinieri TPC, which has since become the most successful art recovery team in the world. Despite following leads and connections to the Sicilian Mafia, neither the Carabinieri nor the FBI have been able to track down the church’s painting—but some believe it now hangs as a symbol of power at Mafia summit meetings.
It was St. Patrick’s Day in Boston when two men disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:24 a.m., tied up the security guards, and disabled the alarm system. After an hour and 21 minutes, they left with 13 works valued at a total of approximately $500 million, making it the largest property crime in US history. Two masterpieces, Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (above), were among their haul. Since that day in 1990, none of the stolen artwork has been found and the case remains on the FBI’s top 10 list of art crimes. The most popular theory is that the theft was connected to the Irish Mafia; the Boston police even suspected infamous mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. But after 27 years, it’s feared that the missing pieces were too famous to resell, and Amineddoleh says it’s common for thieves to destroy the evidence when the police are on their trail. But if that’s the case, the art world has lost more than just a hefty price tag. “Some estimates say that The Concert is worth half a billion dollars. That might be a little high but because Vermeers are so scarce in the market, it’s incredibly valuable,” Amineddoleh explains. “Rembrandt’s only seascape was also stolen in that theft—and we may never see it again.”