A History of the Ambitious Thieves of Art

The recent theft of the £5 million ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884’ by Vincent van Gogh is not the first and won’t be the last piece of art to be stolen. Over years masterpieces have been stolen, damaged and sometimes returned; but in many cases, lost, perhaps never to be found again. ‘Proof of life’ photos were discovered of the most recent theft of van Gogh’s work by Arthur Brand, an art detective, who stated that they were “circulating in mafia circles”. The painting was photographed next to a copy of the New York Times published on the day of the theft, 30th March.

There are many reasons art has been stolen in the past: an outrageous amount of art was stolen during the Second World War by the Nazis. Later to be found by the ‘Monuments Men’, a branch of the allied army founded in 1943, worked to retrieve these stolen pieces of art,  the story of which was subsequently made into a film by George Clooney. Included in the pieces stolen by the Nazis were Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I’ and Raphael’s ‘Portrait of A Young Man’. Klimt’s art was retrieved, but Raphael’s work is still missing, last seen in 1945. These stolen pieces of art – victims of war – showed the importance of art in every aspect of life, even during wartime; perhaps it was a play for power by Hitler.

Other stolen artworks throughout history have stretched from patriotic citizens of their land to a thief’s ambition getting the better of them. The patriotism of some thieves, including the 1911 theft of the ‘Mona Lisa’ by Vincenzo Preuggia, an Italian attempting to return the painting to his homeland, once again reveals the symbolism behind great pieces of art.

The biggest art theft in history happened in March 1990: thirteen objects were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, estimated to be worth approximately $500 million. This theft included Rembrandt’s ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ and ‘The Concert’ by Johannes Vermeer. These robberies of masterpieces are particularly hurtful to the public. A lot of artwork that has been stolen and misplaced has not been found and may never be found. As a result, future generations are missing out more and more.

Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Pablo Picasso has had over 1,000 pieces of his artwork reported missing – he has become the artist with the most stolen in the world. Why is Picasso’s work the most stolen in the world? Because of the sheer amount of it, or because of his truly iconic status? Picasso is not the only artist to have had a target placed on his work. Jan van Eyck’s ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ has been stolen six times, making it the most-stolen artwork in history. The lower left panel ‘The Just Judges’ from the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ is no longer the original panel after being stolen in 1934. The panel was replaced by a note reading “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles”, showing how art has a place within historical events. The plot thickened when Arsène Goedertier, a Belgian politician, was on his deathbed and confessed to his lawyer that he knew where the missing panel was, but would take the secret to his grave, a line we only ever imagine in movies. The piece is still missing to this day and has been replaced by a copy painted by Jef van der Veken, a Belgian art-restorer.

These thefts are not to be mistaken as acts of the past, as already proven by the recent disappearance of van Gogh’s painting. In 2003 Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery had £4 million worth of art stolen, only to be found in a nearby public restroom with the note: “The intention was not to steal. Only to highlight the woeful security.” Whether this was an attempt at comedy by the thief or if a genuine point was trying to be made is not clear. This was not the first piece of art stolen to create a message. In 1976 Ulay, a performance artist, stole ‘The Poor Poet’ by Carl Spitzweg from the New National Gallery in Berlin. The aim was theft-as-performance-art – the painting was supposedly Hitler’s favourite. Ulay took it to the home of a poor Turkish family to hang on their wall and then turned himself in.

Although unfortunate, these incidents make up a piece of each of these artworks’ histories, often enhancing the interest surrounding a particular artwork or artist. There is a certain irreverence that comes from thefts of art by the masters. Perhaps these crimes are an attempt to bring art down from the pedestal it is placed upon. Or maybe they just make the art more valuable, showing that often the artwork means enough to someone that they are willing to commit a crime to obtain it. Whether these thieves mean to or not, their crimes have only added to the strength art has in the bigger picture globally.

Image Credit: The Smithsonian