When most people visit a museum, they enjoy the art or the dinosaurs, maybe take a few pictures, and head home. Maybe they’ll buy a print of a painting they really like. What most people don’t do is plan an elaborate heist to take that art home with them. Then again, some people do. Here are five of the greatest, most famous museum heists in history.
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of New York City’s biggest jewel heist. On Oct. 29, 1964, Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy and a couple pals snuck into the American Museum of Natural History and made off with some of the largest, most famous, and priciest gems and jewels on the planet. The enormous Star of India was later recovered (from a locker in a Miami bus station), though others have never been found.
The craziest part of the robbery was how easy it was. The museum had basically no security, a window in the jewel room was usually propped open for ventilation, and none of the burglar alarms functioned. Which explains how those bozos could have pulled off the heist at all, given that they enjoyed their plunder for all of two days before being caught throwing suspiciously lavish parties at a hotel. (Image via Dinoguy2 CC BY-SA 2.5)
Plucking the Gardner
The most lucrative museum robbery in history hit Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On March 18, 1990, two men pretending to be police officers talked their way into the museum, tied up the security guards, and spent an hour looting the museum. They walked away with $5oo million in art, making it the single highest-value theft of private property ever. Their haul, which included works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet, has never been found, and the case remains unsolved to this day.
In 2000, thieves pilfered a Rembrandt and two Renoirs from the National Museum in Stockholm. To pull off their daring deed, the thieves set two parked cars near the museum on fire as a distraction, left spikes in the road to shred police cars’ tires, threatened museum guards with machine guns, then escaped down a nearby canal in boats. Unusually, all three pieces were eventually found, though it took years and some luck to track them all down. (Image via ArildV CC BY-SA 3.0)
Up in Smoke
In 2012, Romanian gang members snatched seven paintings in three minutes from the Kunstahl Museum in the Netherlands…a museum with no guards. While the thieves were captured, the mother of one claimed she had (this hurts even to write) burned the stolen Picasso, Monet, Gaugin, and Matisse to protect her son from prosecution. Her son is in prison anyway.
Getting stolen from the Louvre worked wonders for the Mona Lisa’s image. In 1911, a handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia swiped Leonadro da Vinci’s painting from behind the protective glass he himself had installed for the museum. The theft of the little-known Mona Lisa went unnoticed in the massive museum for 24 hours. But when the theft was discovered, hoo boy!
The heist became an international sensation, and her face was plastered on the front of newspapers the world over. Suddenly she was the most famous painting on the planet— far too famous for Peruggia to get away with selling. So he stashed her in the false bottom of a trunk and lay low for two years. When he finally tried to sell the thing, he was promptly caught and the Mona Lisa returned to the Louvre, where admiring legions fawn over her to this day.