Art heists in European museums mainly belong to the world of mystery. Museums that were their victims rarely speak about art thefts. On the other hand, people get fascinated by them. Who would dare steal millions of Euros worth of artworks? And why? To unsolve a bit of that mystery, here is an article about some of the most intriguing art heists in European museums.

Art heists in European museums

I used to work as a guide organising private tours at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. During each tour, I would mention the art heist in that museum in 2002. We would always wonder who would still those famous paintings and why? You can’t display them in your living room and show them to your friends when they come over.

However, when those two stollen paintings were recovered in 2016, I started researching more about some of the most intriguing art heists in European museums. And even more important, the motivation behind them.

Read more: 15 Best museums in Europe you have to visit this year

10 most intriguing art thefts in European museums

1 – Mona Lisa, Louvre (1911)

One of the most famous art thefts in European museums happened more than a hundred years ago. And it’s probably why Mona Lisa is a world-famous painting today. The image was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman. He was hired by the museum to build glass cases around some of the paintings.

Later, Vincenzo said he wanted to return the painting to his and its author’s homeland, Italy. He probably wasn’t aware Leonardo da Vinci painted it while he was living in France and that the painting was later bought by the French King Francis I.

So, Vincenzo hid in a closet overnight at the Louvre Museum, stole the painting and ran away with it in the morning. He tried to sell it to some Italian museums. But, the missing painting got a lot of attention from the media around Europe, and no one wanted to get involved. When he tried to sell the artwork to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, he was arrested and the painting was safely brought back to the Louvre.

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2 – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (2002)

Another intriguing art heist in European museums happened almost a hundred years later. In December 2002, two men got into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam by climbing the ladder, broke one of the windows and stole two paintings from the early Van Gogh’s Dutch phase. Although men were soon arrested, they already sold the paintings.

However, in 2016, in a police raid of a house in Italy, they found two lost Van Goghs. So after fourteen years, they were brought back to the museum in Amsterdam. After being on display for a few months, they underwent a thorough restoration. If you’re curious to learn more about it, here is an excellent documentary about the art heist with footage of an actual robbery from the security camera.

 Read more: Meet the artist – Vincent van Gogh

3 – Royal jewellery in Green Vault Museum, Dresden (2019)

This art heist happened recently, and although the responsible for it were arrested, the art pieces they stole haven’t been recovered yet.

A few minutes before breaking into the museum, a group of thieves damaged the electricity power in the building, disabling the alarm that way. They cut off the bars on windows then, smashed the glass and got into the building through a window. They took some of the most precious Royal jewellery in the world, estimated to be worth around 128 million euros. However, the ultimate worth is hard to evaluate due to their historical and cultural value.

Although in 2021, six men were charged for the robbery, the jewellery hasn’t been returned yet. Since the jewellery is easy to melt, the museum officials bagged thieves not dismantling the art pieces.

4 – ‘The Scream’ stolen from the Munch Museum, Oslo (2004)

One of the most famous world paintings, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, was stolen in one of the most intriguing art heists in Europe back in 2004. Two masked men armed with guns entered a museum during its opening hours. They threatened the guards and visitors and took two paintings from the Munch Museum in Oslo: ‘The Scream’ and ‘Madonna’.

The paintings were recovered two years after the robbery. However, its motive, which doesn’t seem to be financial, was never revealed.

 Read more: 7 Top art museums in Europe

5 – Spiderman at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville Paris (2010)

One of the biggest problems for criminals with stolen artworks is finding a buyer. Well, this art heist was made in collaboration between the theft and an art dealer, who probably wanted to have a nice painting to sell.

Vjeran Tomic planned to steal a painting made by Fernand Léger from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville Paris. He visited the museum for days before the robbery. He sprayed the window with the acid to prepare it for his burglary a few days later.

Finally, he came one night to the museums through that window and took the painting. When the alarm didn’t go off, he decided to take a few more artworks created by Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Georges Braque.

Eventually, the theft known in media as the ‘Spiderman’ because of the way he was climbing the walls to get into the museums was caught and sent to prison. But, the artworks haven’t been founded yet.

TIP: If you’d like to read more about this art heist, check out this great piece by The New Yorker.

6 – Benvenuto Cellini’s the ‘Saliera’, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (2003)

In 2003, the alarm expert got into the famous museum in Vienna and stole one of its most famous artworks – Benvenuto Cellini’s the ‘Saliera’. He switched off the alarm, got into the museum and went out of it with his spoil within a minute.

He then buried the golden sculpture in the ground of the nearby forest. Two years later, he sent a message to the police asking for five million euros to retrieve the masterpiece. The police traced the SIM card he used for it, and the thief was soon arrested. The famous artwork was brought back to the museum a few days later.

Read more: Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna Collection

7 – Musée Marmottan – Monet, Paris (1985)

Another art heist in European museums looking like a Hollywood movie plot happened in a peaceful Paris’ Musée Marmottan – Monet. On Sunday morning, five thieves armed with guns got into it during the opening hours. They threatened the visitors and museum guards and told them to lay on the floor. Meanwhile, they took some of the Impressionists’ masterpieces from that museum. They stole nine paintings created by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Seiichi Naruse. The most famous among them was Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’.

The paintings were recovered five years later, after a member of the Japanese mafia involved in a robbery was arrested. They were found in a villa in Corsica and returned to the museum.

Read more: What to see in Musée Marmottan – Monet

8 – Van Gogh painting stolen during the lockdown (2020)

Van Gogh’s paintings are pretty popular among the thieves robbing the European museums. However, this one happened recently and symbolically on Vincent van Gogh‘s birthday, March 30th 2020.

The Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands was closed a few days before, as many European museums had to close their doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The robber used that situation and broke into the museum during the night. He took only one painting, Van Gogh’s ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’, on loan from the Groninger Museum.

The painting is still missing, and it’s still unknown who was behind that art heist. You can check the video from the Guardian of the museum surveillance camera on a link here.

9 – Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2003)

One of the shortest art robberies, but the one in which thieves left the message, happened in Manchester in 2003. One or more thieves got into the Whitworth Art Gallery and stole paintings made by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso. They put them in a cardboard tube and left it in a small toilet located some 200 metres (650 feet) from the museum. They added a message: “We didn’t intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security.”

With so many art heists happening in European museums in the early 2000s’ it is a fair message to share. However, the thieves were never found, so the real motive behind this mystery stays unsolved.

10 – Picasso’s artworks at Palais des Papes, Avignon (1976)

One of the most significant art heists in European museums happened in the Papal Palace in Avignon in 1976. This was when 119 artworks by Pablo Picasso were stolen from the exhibition organised there. Three armed men entered the museum in the evening, threatened the guards and left the museum with the stolen art pieces.

Luckily, all the stollen artworks by Picasso were found later that year. And all seven criminals involved in this art heist have been arrested.

What’s the motive behind the art heists

After reading about all those art heists, one can not wonder about their motives. Is it money? It’s pretty hard to sell a famous stolen artwork. It rarely happens that some eccentric millionaire has a stollen Van Gogh in his bedroom.

Although those paintings are worth millions of euros, once on the black market, their cost drops to some ten per cent of their original value. Sometimes criminals try to sell them to the insurance companies. For them, buying the stolen artwork is easier than paying its initial value to the museum.

However, a darker story is involved in the art heists in European museums. Often, criminals would trade with famous artworks as a guarantee. In case they are buying a large sum of drugs, they would guarantee with a valuable famous painting they will pay for it.

Read more: 15 best exhibitions in European museums in 2023

Although all those art heists could seem weirdly fascinating, the sad reality is that only around ten per cent of stollen artwork are retrieved. The majority of them stay lost to us forever.

Cover photo by fan yang on Unsplash.