Museum heists are often depicted as high-stakes adventures in movies and novels — a fictional counterpart to the dramatic real-life robberies that have been taking place for centuries. While they vary in scale (and success), museum heists have a few core elements in common: audacity, craftsmanship, and unabashed guile. While suspects are sometimes caught and stolen goods are occasionally recovered, the details of these crimes often remain a mystery. From the theft of the “Mona Lisa” in 1911, which catapulted a once-relatively obscure painting to global fame, to the enigmatic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990, when masterpieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt vanished, here are some of the most infamous museum heists in history.
The Theft of the “Mona Lisa”
The theft of the “Mona Lisa” has been called the greatest art theft of the 20th century, but it was a rather rudimentary operation. On the morning of August 21, 1911, the now-famous Leonardo da Vinci painting was carried out of the Louvre in Paris, France, by three Italian handymen who had covered it in a blanket. The men — one of whom, Vincenzo Peruggia, was a former museum employee — are believed to have hidden in a supply closet overnight before removing the painting, its frame, and its protective glass case off the wall while the museum was closed that Monday morning.
At first, no one even noticed the painting was gone; it wasn’t until 28 hours later that the bare spot on the wall was finally acknowledged. Before it went missing, the “Mona Lisa” — now considered the most famous painting in the world — was largely unknown outside the art world. After the heist, images of the Renaissance masterpiece were plastered on newspapers around the world, cementing it as the world-famous piece it is today. The painting remained missing for two years as the investigation went awry; at one point, artist Pablo Picasso was even considered a suspect. In 1913, Peruggia finally attempted to sell the portrait, triggering an arrest and a stint in jail. The “Mona Lisa” was finally recovered in Florence and returned to the Louvre, where it still hangs today.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
It ranks among the most audacious art thefts in history — and it still remains unsolved. In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two people disguised as police officers convinced the security guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to let them inside. The thieves proceeded to subdue the unsuspecting guards and, leaving them handcuffed to pipes in the building’s basement, spent 81 minutes brazenly stealing 13 works of art. Priceless pieces by Rembrandt van Rijn and Édouard Manet were among the stolen goods, as was Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert,” considered the most expensive missing work of art today.
In the aftermath, empty frames hung on the museum walls, as the artworks they housed were cut out and removed during the heist. Despite investigators identifying several probable culprits over the years, and a recent Netflix series and investigative podcast about the heist, as well as new clues deepening the possible ties to organized crime, the Gardner heist remains unsolved, and there’s a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen pieces. The empty frames still hang on the walls today.