Mona Lisa Leaves the Louvre (1911)

On August 21, 1911, an amateur painter set up his easel near the spot where Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”—one of the most famous works of art in the world—hung in the Louvre. To his surprise, the mysterious woman with the haunting half-smile had vanished. French detectives searched for the painting for more than two years, mistakenly hauling in poet Guillaume Apollinaire and artist Pablo Picasso in hopes of cracking the high-profile case. At one point, American tycoon J. P. Morgan was under suspicion for commissioning the theft. Then, in December 1913, an Italian house painter contacted a prominent art dealer in Florence, claiming to be in possession of the celebrated portrait. Police swooped in and arrested Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee, and recovered the painting. It turned out that on the day of the heist, the museum was closed; Peruggia had either hidden in the museum overnight or walked in unnoticed that morning with other workers, removed the “Mona Lisa” from its frame and spirited it out under his clothes. Hailed as a patriot in his native Italy, the burglar served six months in jail for the crime.

Nazis Plunder European Art (1933-1945)

Before and during World War II, Nazis looted an estimated 20 percent of Europe’s rich art heritage, confiscating precious cultural assets either owned by Jewish families or held in museums within occupied cities. Adolf Hitler, himself a failed artist, hoped to amass a giant collection for his unrealized Führermuseum, and, to do so, directed Nazis to plunder storied museums, including the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence, as well as galleries, churches and the homes of private collectors. Among the countless other treasures seized by German soldiers (many of which were recovered after the war) were the sculptures and other decorations that adorned the Amber Room, a lavish chamber in the Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg. Its fabled contents never resurfaced, and over the years it has been speculated that they were destroyed by bombing, lost in a sunken submarine, hidden in a bunker or buried in a lagoon.

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Ghent Altarpiece, History's Most Stolen Artwork, Loses a Panel (1934)

Painted by the Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck, the multi-paneled Ghent Altarpiece was created in the 15th century for the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. Hailed as one of the most important artworks in history, the enormous work (roughly 14 feet wide and 11 feet high, and weighing more than two tons) also has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen—at least seven times. Among its most notable misadventures: In the 16th century, iconoclastic Calvinists tried to pillage and burn it. In 1794, Napoleon’s troops swiped several panels, which ended up in the Louvre. And in the early 19th century, a crooked cleric in cahoots with an art dealer stole the wing panels, which turned up in a Berlin Museum. By the end of World War I, all the components returned to their original home—but the reunion was brief. One night in 1934, thieves broke into the cathedral and stole the lower left panel, demanding a ransom. The panel never turned up again. During World War II, the entire artwork endured perhaps its biggest threat: being swiped by the Nazis and hidden in an Austrian salt mine. (Hitler believed it to be a coded map to ancient Christian relics. Hermann Göring, meanwhile, coveted it for his personal collection.) It was ultimately recovered by the Monuments Men at the end of the war.

Museum of Natural History Heist (1964)

In a crime that would make national headlines, three surfer dudes turned jewel thieves managed to sneak into a fourth-floor window of the New York Museum of Natural History, making off with priceless gems, including the 563-carat Star of India sapphire, the 100-carat DeLong Star Ruby and the 116-carat Midnight Star black sapphire. Jack Murphy (aka Murph the Surf), Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, well-dressed surfers from Miami all in their 20s, were staying at a penthouse hotel suite in Manhattan. On October 29, 1964, after weeks of planning, Murphy and Kuhn scaled a fence before climbing a fire escape, hanging a rope, inching along a narrow ledge and swinging into an open window outside the museum’s J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals as Clark served as lookout below. Using a glass cutter and duct tape to break into display cases—which had a non-working alarm system–the thieves executed their plan without a hitch until they were arrested two days later. Each served about two years in prison for the crime and most of the gems were eventually recovered. 

Fake Cops Loot the Gardner Museum (1990)

Visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston now can only view a framed section of fabric wall where Rembrandt van Rijn's 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee' used to hang. It was one of 13 paintings stolen in a mysterious heist that remains unsolved.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston now can only view a framed section of fabric wall where Rembrandt van Rijn's 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee' used to hang. It was one of 13 valuable paintings stolen in a mysterious heist that remains unsolved.

One of the biggest art heists in history took place on March 18, 1990, when two thieves disguised as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the middle of the night, telling guards they were investigating a disturbance. They tied up the guards in the basement and 81 minutes after arriving, made off with 13 works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. With the artwork and burglars still at large, an FBI investigation remains ongoing, with a $10 million dollar reward offered by the museum for information leading to the stolen treasures’ safe return. The museum leaves empty frames in its galleries as placeholders.

'The Scream' Goes AWOL, Twice (1994 and 2004)

It’s a good thing the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch created several iterations of his most famous work, “The Scream,” since two of them have fallen into the hands of art thieves. First, in February 1994, burglars scaled a ladder and broke a window of the National Museum in Oslo, stealing its version of the iconic painting. They left behind a note that read, “Thanks for the poor security” and later demanded $1 million in ransom. It was recovered three months later through a sting operation. Four men were convicted but were ultimately released on legal technicalities. In August 2004, two masked robbers entered Oslo’s Munch Museum, holding tourists and employees at gunpoint as they tore another version of “The Scream” as well as Munch’s painting “The Madonna” off the wall. Norwegian police tracked down the canvases, which had both sustained minor tears and water damage and apprehended the thieves in 2006.

Sweden’s National Museum Loses Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt (2000)

In a December 2000 heist that could have been plotted by a Hollywood writer,  a gang of thieves used sensational tactics to rob the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. As one of the crew threatened security staff with a machine gun, two others filched two paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and one by Rembrandt. Meanwhile, the robbers’ accomplices blew up cars in other parts of the city to prevent police from fully responding to the situation. (The team had also thrown nails in the road outside the museum to thwart pursuers.) The burglars then jumped into a getaway speedboat outside the waterfront museum with their spoils. A few weeks later, the museum received a ransom note for $3 million, which it declined to pay. The perpetrators were arrested not long after. By 2005, all three of the missing pieces had been recovered.

Three paintings by Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, collectively worth an estimated $1.6 million at the time, spent a rainy night behind a boarded-up outdoor public bathroom after vanishing from the nearby Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England on April 26, 2003. Police investigating the theft received an anonymous tip one day after the theft, leading them to the missing artwork’s’ unlikely hiding place— later cheekily dubbed “the Loovre.” The paintings were found stuffed inside a cardboard tube inscribed with a note claiming that the thieves had engineered the caper only to highlight the museum’s poor security.

Bogus Tourists Lift 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder' (2003)

In August 2003, two thieves posing as tourists plucked the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,” (1501), a Renaissance masterpiece believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci and worth tens of millions of dollars, off a wall of Scotland’s Drumlanrig Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch. After overpowering the room’s guard, the robbers escaped with the painting to a waiting car and ditched the painting’s frame just outside the castle gates. Four years later, police retrieved the painting during a raid of a Glasgow law firm, and eight men were charged in connection with the theft. Scotland Yard long surmised that the painting had been in the hands of drug traffickers, who used it as collateral for deals. The work is now on display at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Cat Burglar Robs the Musée d’Art Moderne (2010)

A masked man thought to have acted alone crept into Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne on May 20, 2010, and slipped out with five priceless paintings, including Pablo Picasso’s “Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois,” Henri Matisse’s “La Pastorale” along with works by Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and Amedeo Modigliani, collectively worth about $70 million at the time. Vjeran Tomic, who came to be known as “Spider-Man” for scaling the sides of buildings for entry—and who honed his parkour skills as a teen scaling the gravestones and mausoleums of Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery—was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Two accomplices, an antique dealer who allegedly ordered the heist and a watchmaker who stored the works, were also convicted. Investigators are still hunting down the paintings, which experts have described as unsellable on the open market.