The Most Intriguing Art Heists in European Museums

By Dotun Ola

The majority of art heists in European museums are mysterious crimes. Rarely do museums that have been the victims of art thefts discuss the crimes. On the other side, people find them fascinating. Who would risk stealing works of art worth millions of euros? Then why? This article on some of the most remarkable art thefts from European museums helps to partially unravel that enigma.

10 Most Intriguing Art Thefts in European Museums

1. Mona Lisa, Louvre (1911)

More than a century ago, one of the most well-known art thefts in European museums took place. And it’s probably the reason the Mona Lisa is a well-known piece of art today. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman, stole the image. The museum employed him to construct glass cases around several of the artworks.

Later, Vincenzo declared that he want to give the picture to Italy, the country of both the artist and himself. He was probably unaware that Leonardo da Vinci created it while he was a resident of France and that French King Francis I eventually acquired the artwork.

In order to steal the picture, Vincenzo spent the night at the Louvre Museum hidden in a closet, then escaped with it the next day. He made an effort to sell it to certain museums in Italy. However, the lost painting received a lot of coverage in the European media, and nobody wanted to engage. He attempted to sell the piece to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, but was caught and the picture was safely returned to the Louvre.

2. Picasso’s artworks at Palais des Papes, Avignon (1976)

The Papal Palace in Avignon was the scene of one of the most spectacular art thefts in European museums in 1976. At that time, 119 Pablo Picasso pieces that were part of an exhibition there were taken. Evening hours saw three armed men break into the museum, threaten the security personnel, and steal the artwork.

Fortunately, during that year, all of the stolen Picasso pieces were discovered. And police have detained all seven of the perpetrators responsible for this art theft.

3. Musée Marmottan – Monet, Paris (1985)

Another art theft that resembled a plot from a Hollywood film occurred in the serene Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris. Five robbers with weapons broke in during its opening hours on Sunday morning. The guards of the museum and the guests were threatened and instructed to lie down. In the meantime, they stole several of the masterpieces of the Impressionists from the gallery. They took nine works of art by Seiichi Naruse, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet. The most well-known of these was “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet.

Five years later, the paintings were found after the arrest of a Japanese mafia member who had been involved in a robbery. They were recovered from a Corsican villa and brought back to the gallery.

4. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (2002)

Nearly a century later, unusual art theft in European museums took place. Two men stormed into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002 by scaling the ladder, shattered one of the windows, and stole two works from the artist’s early Dutch period. Despite being quickly captured, the men had already sold the artworks.

However, during a police raid of a home in Italy in 2016, they discovered two missing Van Goghs. They were so returned to the museum in Amsterdam after fourteen years. They underwent a complete refurbishment after being on exhibit for a few months. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this fantastic documentary on the art heist that includes real-life security camera footage of a robbery.

5. Benvenuto Cellini’s the ‘Saliera’, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (2003)

The “Saliera” by Benvenuto Cellini was one of the iconic works of art that were stolen from the renowned Vienna museum in 2003 by an alarm expert. In less than a minute, he turned off the alarm, entered the museum, and exited carrying his loot.

The golden sculpture was subsequently interred in the ground of the nearby forest. He contacted the police two years later and requested five million euros to have the work of art returned. The thief was quickly apprehended after the authorities tracked the SIM card he used for it. A few days later, the renowned piece of art was returned to the museum.

6. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2003)

In 2003, one of the quickest art thefts—but the one in which the criminals left a note—took place in Manchester. The Whitworth Art Gallery was broken into by one or more burglars who took artworks by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. They packed them in a tube made of cardboard and deposited them in a tiny restroom about 200 meters (650 feet) away from the museum. “We didn’t want to steal these artworks, but to show the appalling security,” they wrote as a statement.

It is a fair message to convey given the high number of art thefts that had a place in European institutions in the early 2000s. The true cause of this riddle, however, remains a mystery because the burglars were never discovered.

7. “The Scream” Stolen from the Munch Museum, Oslo (2004)

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” one of the most well-known paintings in the world, was taken in one of the most fascinating art thefts in Europe back in 2004. During the museum’s regular business hours, two masked guys carrying firearms broke in. They stole “The Scream” and “Madonna” from the Munch Museum in Oslo while threatening the security personnel and guests.

Two years after the robbery, the artworks were found. Its purpose, which doesn’t appear to be pecuniary, was never made clear, though.

8. Spiderman at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville Paris (2010)

Finding a buyer is one of the toughest challenges facing thieves with stolen art. This art theft was carried out in cooperation with an art dealer, who most likely wanted to have a great painting to sell.

Vjeran Tomic intended to steal a Fernand Léger painting from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Before the robbery, he spent days visiting the museum. In order to get the window ready for his break-in a few days later, he sprayed it with acid.

Eventually, he entered the museum one night by that window and removed the painting. He decided to steal a couple more works by Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Georges Braque when the alarm didn’t go off.

Eventually, the thief who became known as the “Spiderman” in the media for scaling the walls to enter the museums was apprehended and imprisoned. However, the artworks have not yet been established.

9. Royal Jewelry in Green Vault Museum, Dresden (2019)

The perpetrators of this latest art theft were apprehended, but the stolen works of art haven’t yet been found.

A bunch of robbers sabotaged the building’s electrical system just before breaking into the museum, which rendered the alarm inoperable. They broke the glass, took off the window bars, and then entered the building through a window. Some of the most priceless royal jewelry in the entire world was taken; its approximate value is 128 million euros. Due to its historical and cultural significance, it is difficult to determine its true value.

The jewelry has not yet been retrieved, despite the fact that six persons were charged in 2021 for the robbery.

10. Van Gogh’s Painting Was Stolen During the Lockdown (2020)

The burglars looting European museums are quite fond of Van Gogh’s artwork. However, this one occurred lately and, symbolically, on March 30, 2020, the birthday of Vincent van Gogh.

The Covid-19 outbreak forced the closure of numerous European museums, including the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands, a few days prior. Taking advantage of the circumstance, the burglar broke into the museum late at night. He borrowed just one piece of art from the Groninger Museum, Van Gogh’s “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.”

The picture is still missing, and the perpetrator of the art theft is still at large.