Art theft doesn’t immediately conjure up images of shoot-outs, explosions and car chases but excitement comes in many shapes.
FBI art cops track down masterpieces stolen by Nazis and stop terrorists from selling ‘blood antiquities' looted from Iraq and Syria’s museums. It’s not all about following the yellow brick road to find Judy Garland’s stolen ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz - although the Bureau cracked that case too.
The rapid deployment Art Crime Team was formed in 2004, mainly to recover thousands of artifacts looted from The Iraq Museum after the US bombed Baghdad. More than 20 agents now also investigate fraud, forgeries, museum heists and money laundering. The Bureau has tracked down art and objects valued at nearly $800m but some of the toughest cases still puzzle the FBI’s most creative minds.
America’s largest art robbery
The empty frames at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are a stark reminder of the 1990 St Patrick’s Day robbery, the single-largest art theft in the world, according to the museum. It’s also an open case that the Bureau has been trying to solve for decades.
Two thieves disguised as police in fake mustaches convinced security guards to buzz them in during the night shift, then overpowered the guards. Thirteen works of art worth more than $500m were stolen including Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Still unresolved, the museum is offering a $10m reward for the return of the paintings. One tip-off fingered an Irish gangster, but US police believe the art is probably still in America, hiding in a private collection.
The Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius violin theft
A prized violin made in 1727 by Antonio Stradivari was stolen from the New York apartment of concert violinist Erica Morini in 1995, a case that still confounds the Bureau. The Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius violin - valued at $3m - was bought by her father in Paris in 1924.
Morini was 91 at the time of the break-in and was not told about it because of her ill health, according to the Violin Channel. She died shortly after the robbery. Police believe someone had keys to her apartment and lock-safe cabinet, but the thief and the violin were never found. The case remains on the FBI’s Top 10 Art Thefts list (see the full list below).
The $1m Renoir mystery
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair was stolen during an armed robbery at a Houston, Texas home in 2011. The robber wore a ski mask and carried a large-caliber, semi-automatic handgun. He walked off with the French Impressionist painting still in its frame.
A private insurer has offered a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the recovery of the painting, valued at $1m, but FBI agents have been searching for a decade.
Looting in Iraq and Syria
Looting funds terrorism. While Islamic State destroys Unesco heritage sites like Iraq’s ancient city of Nimrud, the terrorist group is also accused of profiting from looted artifacts and the sale of stolen goods on the black market.
The UN Security Council has condemned trade with al-Qaeda-associated groups and the FBI has warned US dealers not to sell stolen antiquities. In 2016, the Bureau and the US Justice Department took it one step further, however, filing a civil lawsuit asking for the return of four ancient artifacts - a gold ring (above), gold coins and a carved neo-Assyrian stone - believing them to have been in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Mark Altaweel, a reader at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, told SPYSCAPE that Islamic State remains active in localized areas, often operating underground, but that it is difficult to say how much looting is linked to the organization: “It could be indirect or direct, or people are taking advantage of the lack of security and poor economic conditions, which is always the case, even in normal times.”
Norway’s most famous work of art, The Scream, has been stolen not once, but twice. Artist Edvard Munch actually created five versions of his iconic, anguished subject - two in paint, two in pastel and a lithograph stone - and both paintings have been taken and recovered in police sting operations.
In February 1994, as Norway focused on the opening ceremony of Lillehammer’s Winter Olympics, two men broke into Oslo’s National Gallery and stole the 1893 version of the emotionally charged painting. They even left a note: ‘Thanks for the poor security.’
The museum refused to pay a $1m ransom demand but the painting was eventually recovered in a joint operation with British police. Charles Hill, then a Scotland Yard detective, revealed to SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast how he posed as an art expert to flush out the thieves. Four men were imprisoned but released on appeal.
Ten years later The Scream was stolen yet again, this time the 1910 version was taken during daylight hours by masked gunmen at the Munch Museum in Oslo. Bad luck. A bystander snapped a photo of the thieves as they ran to their car. The FBI’s new Art Crime Team publicized the theft widely, a warning to US dealers and potential buyers that they’d be answering to the Bureau if the painting surfaced in America. Three men were convicted in 2006 and The Scream was recovered.
A third version of The Scream, one of the pastels, was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2012. The price tag? A steal at just under $120m.
The FBI has an enviable track record for recovering treasures on its home turf, including a pair of ruby slippers worn by Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz. The sparkling heels - the Holy Grail of Hollywood memorabilia insured for £1m - were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
The FBI organized an undercover operation (yes, really, an undercover operation) in 2018 but no arrests were announced. The size 5 slippers are now back safely where they belong, and yes, you guessed it. There’s no place like home.
The FBI's Top Ten Art Crimes
- Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts
- Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft
- Theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco
- Theft of the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius
- The Van Gogh Museum Robbery
- Theft of Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise
- Theft of the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals, Panels 3-A and 3-B
- Theft from the Museu Chacara do Céu
- Theft of Van Mieris’ A Cavalier
- Theft of Renoir Oil Painting