Motion sensors, trigger-plates, priceless works of art, and cat burglars sneaking past security guards: we don’t know about you, but we here at Don’t Panic are suckers for a good art heist story. Whilst, of course, they're always severe blows to museums and taxpayers often end up footing the bill in order to track down the criminals, fewer things serve to capture the public’s imagination more effectively.
Therefore, you’ll surely have heard of how thieves broke into a Rotterdam museum last Tuesday and walked away with priceless works of art by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Gaugin: some of the most important artists who have ever picked up a paint brush. For your perusal, we slip into our fetching catsuits, dance suggestively over laser beams and go all Zeta-Jones in order to bring you a selection of the most audacious, real-life art heists in modern memory.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Dressed as two policemen, two crooks entered the stunning Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, on St Patrick’s Day. With a good deal of blagging, they managed to handcuff the guards and chain them to pipes down in the basement. Then they proceeded to swipe thirteen artworks, ranging from an ancient Chinese ku (a type of vase), to works by Rembrandt and Flinck. All in all, their haul amounted to a whopping $200-300m. 22 years later, the FBI have been unable to track down the criminals, and the perpetrators remain at large. The museum is offering a $5m reward for any information leading to the recovery of the artworks.
Vincenzo Peruggia and Mona Lisa
No high-tech alarm systems, no need to spend a fortune on expensive night-vision goggles and surveillance – ah, how simple things were for an art thief at the turn of the century! Possessor of one of the greatest names ever, Vincenzo Peruggia hid inside a supplies closet at the Louvre in 1911, and waited until the museum had shut. when everybody had left, he crept out of the cupboard and made his way toward DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, unhooked it, hid it under his smock, and escaped. The painting remained undiscovered for two years, until an impatient Peruggia tried to sell it to an art gallery in Florence. Rooky error, Vincenzo!
Poor Russborough House! This Irish country estate turned art gallery has suffered not one but four separate robberies. The first was conducted in 1974 by British heiress/IRA-activist Dr. Rose Dugdale, whose gang struck the estate’s 71-year-old owner with a pistol and stole 13 paintings with the goal of trading them for hunger-striking IRA sisters Dolorous and Marion Price. All artworks were recovered 11 days later, however, from a cottage in County Cork. Dublin gangster Martin ‘The General’ Cahill then targeted the estate in 1988, lifting artworks valued at £30m. Then, in 2001, Martin ‘The Viper’ Foley, an old associate of Cahill’s broke in and stole the paintings with the intention of using them as bargaining chips if he and his gang were ever prosecuted for drugs or weapons charges. In 2002, the estate was hit again, by the same members of Foley’s gang! Can't someone cut Russborough a break?
Sweden’s National Museum
In one of the most violent heists ever pulled off, thieves targeted the National Museum in Stockholm in 2000. Setting off two car-bombs on the other side of the capital, the crooks used the ensuing confusion to enter the museum and, at gunpoint, made off with one Rembrandt and two Renoir paintings. Beating a hasty retreat to the river, the gang spread nails in front of the museum and – if that wasn’t Bond-villain enough – escaped by speedboat along the Norrström river. Whilst they eluded police for a while, eight men were eventually imprisoned, and the paintings were discovered across Scandinavia and returned to Stockholm.
Gerald Blanchard and the Sisi Star
A criminal mastermind parachuting onto a museum roof under the cover of darkness, a priceless jewel crafted for an assassinated Austrian Empress locked behind bullet-proof glass and placed on a weight-sensitive pedestal, and a gift shop fake? Nope, not the latest plot of a Hollywood heist movie. In 1998, Gerald Blanchard bluffed an exclusive tour around Schönnbrunn Palace in Vienna, and managed to view a special artefact which would open to the general public in a few days. The item was the glittering Koechert Diamond Pearl, or the Sisi Star, a jewel belonging to Empress Elisabeth which she wore in her long hair.
Later that day, he bought a fake replica of the star from the museum’s gift-shop, and set to scheming. A few days later, under the cover of darkness, Blanchard jumped out of a plane, parachuted onto Schönnbrunn’s unguarded roof, evaded the motion-sensors, replaced the star with the replica, and escaped by rappelling down the back wall. Returning the following day for the star’s official unveiling, he watched as dazzled visitors cooed over the gift shop fake. Later caught in connection to a nearly-flawless bank heist back in Winnipeg, Blanchard revealed in court that he’d hidden Sisi’s star in his grandmother’s basement, and the jewel was returned to Austria. He was released from prison in 2010, and is now working as a security consultant – and a darn good one at that, we bet!