5 Fascinating Cases of Stolen Artwork Recovered


On Sunday, the world received some good news. German magazine Focus reported that in 2011, authorities conducting a tax-evasion investigation found $1.35 billion in modernist paintings stashed, for years, in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. The recovered pieces, more than 1,500 paintings, were first confiscated by Nazi officials who deemed the avant-garde works by artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall “degenerate.” Gurlitt’s father Hildebrand was an art dealer charged with selling the stolen works to foreign buyers. The pieces found a new home instead amongst cans of food in the pantry. Hildebrand hid them there, occasionally selling one to eat.

While many cases of stolen work still remain regrettably unsolved (we’re looking at you, evocative, empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner), the following are five of the biggest success stories.

The Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich had the efficacy of their security system tested in 2008 when four major works including the museum’s most valuable painting Cézanne’s The Boy in the Red Vest were stolen. Three masked men walked into the museum in broad daylight, grabbed the paintings from the wall, threw them in their van, and drove off. Major art heists are rare enough, but this was Switzerland’s second just that week. Two of the paintings, a Van Gogh and a Monet, were recovered in the parking lot of a mental hospital near the museum that very day. While, The Boy in the Red Vest remained missing until April 12, 2012, when it was found in the trunk of a car in Serbia.

The Cellini Salt Cellar or the Saliera, Benvenuto Cellini’s table-sculpture-cum-salt-and-pepper-shaker was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in May of 2003. The Saliera’s reclining male (salt) and female (pepper) figures made up Cellini’s last extant work in a precious metal and was originally crafted for a French king. The “Mona Lisa of sculptures,” as it was dubbed by the museum’s director, was taken from its smashed display case in the early morning hours and remained missing until 2006. It was in January of that year that thief Robert Mang led police to the lead box where the 10-inch sculpture sat, 50 miles northeast of Vienna, buried.

Does something even count as stolen if it’s only gone for 35 minutes? That’s the case with Van Gogh’s most successful early painting, The Potato Eaters. The muted depiction of peasant life was a work that Van Gogh was particularly proud of, and on April 14, 1991, it and 19 other of the artist’s works were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The haul, which was reportedly worth “hundreds of millions,” was inexplicably discarded in the getaway car at a railroad station near the museum.

February 12, 1994, marked two important events in Norway’s history. It was the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and the day that two assailants broke into the National Gallery in Oslo and stole the museum’s version of Edvard Munch’s seminal The Scream, leaving behind only a note that said, “Thanks for the poor security.” The painting was found unscathed in May of the same year.

Even the world’s most famous painting was at one point susceptible to theft. Da Vinci’s masterpiece went missing from the Louvre’s Salon Carré on August 21, 1911. Its disappearance went unnoticed for an entire day until painter Louis Béroud, seeking to sketch the painting, found only the four iron pegs on which it once hung. For more than two years the case went unsolved, with popular suspects including poet Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso himself. The truth was much simpler than any of the investigators could have initially imagined. Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre employee, walked into the Salon Carré and, noticing it empty, grabbed the Mona Lisa, hid it under his smock, and simply walked out with it. The painting was found once Peruggia, an Italian patriot who thought the painting rightfully belonged to Italy, tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence.