Ducal Palace in Urbino: In 1975 two Piero della Francesco paintings and a Raphael were cut from their frames and stolen. The culprits were uncovered as local criminals planning to sell the paintings on the international market. The paintings were recovered in Switzerland a year later.
Marmottan Museum in Paris: The 1985 theft of nine paintings—including Renoir’s “Bathers” and Monet’s “Impression, Soleil Levant”—was orchestrated by the Japanese mob (the Yakuza). The artworks, however, were too “hot” to sell immediately. The paintings were recovered in Corsica in 1991.
Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology: On Christmas Eve, 1985, 140 precious objects were stolen. Whether it was lack of vigilance by the guards, or the broken alarm system, the thieves managed to enter the museum and remove the sheets of glass from seven showcases. The majority of the objects were recovered five years later.
Manhattan branch of London dealer Colnaghi: In 1988 a skylight maneuver and a rope led to the theft of 18 paintings and 10 drawings, a haul estimated at $6 to $10 million—making it New York’s largest art heist.
Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Holland: Three van Goghs were stolen in 1988. This theft highlighted the link between art theft and the art market: two weeks earlier, Sotheby’s and Christie’s had published a list of top prices paid for art; the list included five van Goghs among the top ten.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston: St. Patrick’s Day in 1990 saw one of the most intriguing “unsolved” spectacular art heists in history. On that fateful day, two men in police uniforms knocked on the side door of the Boston museum and made off with artworks valued at $300 million.
The Buehrle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland: On a Sunday afternoon in 2008, three men in ski masks held up museum employees with a pistol, snatched artwork off the walls, and made off in a getaway vehicle. Among the absconded works were pieces by van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, and Degas. Estimated value: more than $163 million.
These crimes do make for great stories; however, one cannot forget that they are, in fact, crimes. And while it seems we are moving away from the catsuits and getaway cars, illegal activities are still rampant in the art market. Would the press portray James Meyer’s story differently if he had pulled an Ocean’s Twelve and used contortionist moves to bypass museum sensors? Or if he had had a speedboat revved up, ready to disappear into the night? How does society’s romanticizing of these “Blockbuster Crimes” affect Art Crime?
After 27 years of working for “Pop Art master” Jasper Johns, his assistant James Meyer has been arrested for stealing at least twenty-two works from his employer and selling them through an anonymous New York art gallery. Patricia Cohen reported in The New York Times that Mr. Meyer has been charged with stealing $6.5 million worth of Jasper Johns artwork.
Mr. Meyer is an artist himself and has spoken about how lucky he felt to be mentored by an art icon of the 20th century. Prior to working for Jasper Johns, Mr. Meyer made a career of painting knockoffs of van Gogh and Matisse at $6 an hour. So how did Mr. Meyer come to pocket $3.4 million? Mr. Meyer pulled off his heist by falsely telling the dealer andbuyers that Mr. Johns had given the works to him as presents. Purchasers were under an agreement to keep the art private for at least eight years—not to exhibit it or resell it.
The nefarious underside of the art world is of indescribable interest and intrigue; this current scandal is just one of countless “heists” that have occurred throughout history. Where does this specific case fall in the ranking? According to a 2008 article posted by Forbes, the following are considered (a selection of) “The World’s Greatest Art Heists”:
The Mona Lisa: In 1911, Eduardo de Valfierno paid three men to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. The famous da Vinci painting was discovered in Italy, and returned to the Louvre.
“Portrait of the Duke of Wellington”: This Goya painting was heading stateside after its purchase by a rich American collector in 1961 when the government managed to raise the necessary funds to keep it in London. Less than three weeks after the painting was hung in the National Gallery, it was stolen and held for ransom (purported to go to charity). The painting was returned voluntarily four years later by the thief, Kempton Bunton.