Missing paintings, disappearing masterpieces, art stolen by Nazis: it sounds like the makings of an intense “Whodunnit?” game. But these “crimes of the century” all are too real, and happen more than you may realize.
The disappearances of some of history’s greatest artistic masterpieces have plagued crime scene investigators for decades. Original works by Picasso, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci (among others) have provided key targets for well-masterminded art heists and earned top spots in the stolen art database. But the motives behind these missing paintings are just as mysterious as the way in which they became missing in the first place.
Stolen Art: Picasso’s Le pigeon aux petis pois (The pigeon with green peas)
Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso is best known for his eccentric cubism style that contorted his subjects into sharp geometric lines but never quite crossed the lines of abstraction.
Though works like Femme assise and Violon are well known due to Picasso’s inherent style, his 1911 Le pigeon aux petis pois gained fame for a much different reason: it was stolen from Paris’ Musee d’Art Moderne in 2010.
A single thief managed to pull what is now considered as one of the biggest art heists ever. Five pieces, including Picasso’s, were removed from the museum. Investigators discovered that the motion detectors in the crime scene hadn’t been working for almost two months, when they were manually disabled by museum management.
The paintings have yet to be recovered. One suspect in the case claims he tossed the art into a trash can, but police have yet to verify the authenticity of the story.
Stolen Art: Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Reigning as the most famous Dutch painter in history, Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn earned fame for his depictions of iconic people, scenery, and events.
But just as iconic as his style of portraits and conflict is his work titled The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was stolen with 12 other pieces in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Showcasing how Rembrandt envisioned Jesus easing the stormy seas, as depicted in the Bible, the theft is considered among the biggest unsolved stolen art cases in history.
The painting was the pinnacle of the famed Dutch room at the museum, situated directly across from a portrait of Rembrandt that was also taken.
And if you ever thought stolen art wasn’t something to take seriously, the FBI issued an unprecedented $5 million reward for clues leading to the recovery of these 12 works.
Missing Painting: Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady
Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) is widely known for his paintings mostly concerning the female body. His famed oil painting titled Portrait of a Lady holds an unusual backstory.
It is believed that Klimt’s original painting displayed an entirely different person than the one hung in the Galleria Ricci-Oddi. Klimt is said to have had a love affair with her, but after her sudden death, he painted over her.
The painting disappeared in 1997 shortly before an exhibition at the Galleria. Though it was believed to be stolen at the time, Italian police cracked the case when they discovered an upscale forgery just two months later.
Art Stolen by Nazis: Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man
Famed Italian artist and architect Raphael (1483-1520) will forever be cemented in the annals of the Italian Renaissance, having completed numerous works of art before his passing at age 37.
His presumed self-portrait, titled Portrait of a Young Man, was stolen by Nazis and remains the most important painting missing from WWII. The painting was one of several rescued from the Czartoryski Museum at the onset of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Though it was hidden for a time at a home in Sieniawa, the Gestapo uncovered them and selected three works for Hitler’s personal collection.
In 1945, Hans Frank, a Hitler appointee, brought the portrait back to Germany to hang in the Wawel Castle. The paintings were moved to a couple different locations, but the case grows cold after Frank’s execution in 1946.
Recovered: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
Perhaps one of the most recognized names among both art critics and non-art communities is Leonardo da Vinci. Having delivered advancements to both science and art, da Vinci’s impact on the Italian Renaissance has earned him a top spot in art history.
But would da Vinci still warrant the same level of fame today if his prized Mona Lisa had never been recovered when it was stolen in 1911?
A single Louvre employee was responsible for this stolen art. Hiding in a broom closet during business hours, Vincenzo Peruggia tucked the painting under his coat and walked out after the museum had closed, with the intentions of returning the stolen art to its Italian motherland. He was caught two years later after attempting to sell the missing painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Salvaged: Munch’s The Scream
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) created a definitive style that emphasized powerful depictions of psychological topics. These illustrations are best represented in his most famous work, The Scream, which has been the target of two separate thefts and multiple attempts.
The first occurred in 1994 on the opening day of the Olympics in Lillehammer. The thieves left a note saying “Thanks for the poor security,” and held the art for a $1 million ransom. The gallery refused to pay, and instead set up a sting with police. The thieves were caught only 3 months later, with no damage to the painting.
The second incident didn’t end as well as the first. Masked gunmen stole the painting, along with Munch’s Madonna, during daytime hours at the Munch Museum in Oslo. Six men stood trial for the missing painting, though the painting itself hadn’t been recovered. Both pieces of stolen art were recovered two years later, but both had suffered some damage, though nothing major that couldn’t be repaired.
Recovered: Abela’s Carnaval Infantil (Children’s Carnival)
Cuban painter Eduardo Abela (1889-1965)was well known for his idyllic view on what life in the Cuba countryside should look like, as evidenced in his masterpiece Carnaval Infantil.
Interestingly, this missing works of art case ended before it had much time to begin. That is, Abela’s Carnaval Infantil was returned before it was found to be missing.
Art dealer Ramon Cernuda purchased the missing painting in a show in Miami, realizing after some research that the art belonged to a museum. Cernuda contacted the museum about the stolen art, which led to the museum’s discovery that they were missing 95 items from storage.
Cernuba planned to return the painting to the museum after the investigation and was also able to provide details on a few other missing works of art.
Recovered: Monet’s Beach in Pourville
French impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) may be most recognized for his rich blends of colors in nature. Master of oil-on-canvas, Monet’s highly acclaimed technique and masterpieces have given him a recognizable name among art connoisseurs and the casual observer.
His work, the Beach in Pourville, is one of many that represent his classic blends of color and texture. But its notoriety also stems from its disappearance from the Poznan National Museum in 2000. The thief cut the art from the frame and replaced it with a fake representation painted on cardboard. At the time of the heist, it was the only work of Monet in Poland on public display.
Police searched for 10 years before recovering the missing painting and apprehending the person whom they believed to have painted the copy.
Who will be the next stolen art victim?
Even some of the top art museums in the world have been plagued by missing paintings or stolen art. It’s not only important to take every precaution in protecting your art, but partnering with people who care as much about preserving art as you do.
Museo Vault is dedicated specifically to keeping your art investments safe and secure, whether it’s during shipping, storage, restoration, or crisis aversion. Contact us today to learn more about our white glove service that’s as much a work of art as the paintings we care for.