Art theft has always been a popular criminal activity. Throughout history, numerous artworks were stolen for various purposes: some thieves were likely hired by wealthy and influential individuals who simply desired to possess a particular masterpiece, and others were motivated by the fact that many historical pieces of art are worth millions of dollars and most likely easy to sell on the black market.
While art thieves usually concentrate on the theft of a single valuable artwork, some heists have resulted in the theft of entire collections. For example, in 1990, unknown perpetrators disguised as police officers casually relieved the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston of 13 artworks with an estimated value of over $500 million.
Some culturally significant paintings, including Edvard Munch’s famous masterpiece The Scream, were stolen multiple times and recovered. The painting that currently holds the infamous title of the most stolen painting of all time is Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which consists of 12 intricately painted panels.
Several panels were stolen from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent by Napoleon before his defeat at Waterloo, the Germans snatched several panels during World War I, an unknown thief stole one of the panels in the 1930s, and the Nazis stole all of the remaining panels in the early 1940s. Although most of the panels have been returned to the cathedral, some are still missing.
Unfortunately, many stolen artworks have never been found. In fact, statistically, only about 5 to 10 percent of art theft cases have been successfully solved. This means that most art thieves and black-market art dealers are apparently quite professional and successful in their enterprise. Some of the most valuable stolen paintings that are still missing include timeless works of great masters: although the FBI Art Crime Team, Interpol, London’s Metropolitan Police, and the NYPD Special Frauds Unit have been conducting extensive investigations, the whereabouts of these masterpieces remain unknown.
Caravaggio’s majestic painting entitled Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, painted in 1609, was stolen in 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. It is currently listed on the FBI’s list of top 10 art thefts of all time and its value has been estimated at $20 million. Many experts speculate that the painting was stolen by members of the notorious Sicilian Mafia, but the investigators still have no clue on its current location.
In May 2010, Picasso’s The Pigeon with Green Peas was stolen from the Parisian Museum of Modern Art along with several other valuable items. A thorough international investigation led to the arrest of the perpetrator in 2011, but he claimed to have deposited the painting in a dumpster outside the museum. The $28 million artwork has never been found: it was most likely destroyed along with the rest of trash in the dumpster. However, it is possible that the thief managed to fool the authorities and that the painting remains hidden in some shady art lover’s personal gallery.
With an estimated value of $55 million, Poppy Flowers by Van Gogh, a small painting which depicts a vase of lush red and yellow poppies, was actually stolen twice. In 1977, it vanished from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo and was recovered 10 years later when a black market art dealer attempted to sell it in Kuwait.
In 2010, it was stolen again from the same museum and the investigators are still in the dark. In fact, an Egyptian billionaire businessman named Naguib Sawiris is currently offering a reward of $175,00 to anyone who could provide information which leads to the recovery of the painting.
Finally, two of the most valuable stolen paintings that are still missing were actually stolen at the same time, during the aforementioned 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The first one, Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which depicts Christ calming a storm, has an estimated value of a whopping $100 million. The second one, Vermeer’s well-known masterpiece The Concert, worth an estimated $200 million, is infamously known as the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting in the world.
For the past 27 years, a stellar reward of $10 million has been offered to anyone who could provide any information that would lead to the recovery of either of the two paintings, but, so far, nobody has tried to claim the reward. Instead of being publicly available to all lovers of exquisite art who wish to marvel at their beauty, the paintings most likely remain a part of someone’s illegal private collection.