Five Art Thefts of the 20th Century

The theft of valuable art masterpieces has represented a subject of movies, books and newspaper headlines. It has captured the public’s imagination like few other types of crime have. The 20th century hosts several unbelievable art thefts. Whilst some of the masterpieces have been recovered, other haven’t been found as of yet. Amongst these is the art heist which has taken place in London at the National Gallery.

  • In 1961 Duke of Wellington portrait painted by Francisco de Goya was bought by Charles Wrighsman, a wealthy American, for $ 392,000.00. He was going to bring the painting to the United States with him, however, the British wanted to keep it in England and they paid what was required for their national hero’s portrait. The artwork has been exhibited at the National Gallery in London.

Just after three weeks the same exact artwork was stolen by a man called Kempton Bunton who asked as ransom the price paid for the painting at the auction house.

Regardless, this thief was not to be compared to any other normal thief. He certainly wanted to invoke Robin Hood’s acts of good gestures. Why?

He wanted to use the money for charity, to help poor people. The artwork was brought back when the “unemployed bus driver” Bunton left it at the train station’s luggage center and after he sent a “claim ticket to London Daily Mirror”. He surrendered to the police few weeks later and he was put in prison for three months.

  • Italy has represented the country of great Renaissance masters but it was also the scene where “the art crime of the century” has taken place. In 1975 two paintings by Piero della Francesca The flagellation of Christ, and The Madonna of Senigallia and a portrait of a woman by Raphael Sanzio, The Mute, were robbed from the Ducal Palace in Urbino, Italy. The art heist has been carried out by some criminals who wanted to sell the artworks “on the international art market”, something that was certainly not very easy to do. In March 1976, the masterpieces were found in Locarno, Switzerland.


  • On a third place of unheard of art heists is lovely France who was host to an art theft at the Marmottan Museum in Paris, in 1985. Nine painting were stolen from the museum, amongst them there was the famous Impression Soleil Levant by Claude Monet, “painting who gave Impressionism its name” and Bathers by Pierre August Renoir. Following a link to some other stolen paintings in1984 from a small city museum in France which have been found in Japan, the police came to the conclusion that the artworks have been stolen by a well known Japanese gangster named Shuinichi Fujikuma. But the real thieves were in fact other criminals: Phillipe Jamin and Youssef Khimounwho which werewith Fujikuma in prison in France, in 1978. The masterpieces were found in Corsica, in 1991.


  • In Holland, 3 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Dried Sunflowers, Weaver’s Interior, and a preliminary painting of The Potatoes Eaters, were thieved from the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo. The theft was triggered by the publication of top ten most expensive ever sold paintings by Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses. Five Van Gogh’s paintings were published in their announcement and in the top was Irises, sold for an astonishing price of $53.9 million. The thieves asked for a ransom of $2.5 million. The pieces of art were recovered in July 13th, 1989 without any ransom paid.


  • In 2000, in Stockholm at the National Museum, a Self-portrait by Rembrandt and two paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Young Parisienne and The Conversation, were looted.

One of the criminals walked in the museum with a machine gun pointing it at one of the guards and the other two stole the famous artworks worth of $30 million. They have escaped by speedboat, bearing in mind that the National Museum is next to the water and that was a convenient way to disappear into the unknown. They had tried to attract attention to the other part of the city, “making a show out of a heist” by setting two cars on fire and “sprinkling nails on the ground”.

After the theft, the thieves ask for a ransom of $10 million per painting using as an intermediate a lawyer who become a suspect himself and was asked to reveal the names of the criminals.

Eight men have been arrested and the art was recovered. One painting was recovered after two weeks of the heist, and one of the Renoir’s paintings was found after five years in a hotel in Copenhagen where it was  offered for sale to an FBI agent for half a million dollars. The last painting was recovered in Los Angeles, SUA where the thieves could find easily a buyer.

Even with security guards on duty, the museums are still vulnerable to theft, considering that some criminals are looking to find easy ways to become rich overnight. Therefore stealing some of the most valuable treasuries of humanity: the masterpieces of the world, feels like winning the lottery.


Francisco De Goya                                       

Duke of Wellington (1814)

Oil on canvas, stolen from

The National Gallery in London, England

Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ (1455-1460)

Oil on canvas, stolen from the Ducal Palace in Urbino, Italy.

Claude Monet        

Impression Soleil Levant (1872)                                      

Oil on canvas, stolen from the Marmottan Museum in Paris, France

Pierre August Renoir

The Bathers (1887), oil on canvas

stolen from the Marmottan Museum in Paris, France

Vincent Van Gogh                                        

Dried Sunflowers (1888)

Oil on canvas, stolen from

Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Holland


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