The cheek! From hapless chancers to masters of audacity

A century ago today, an Italian stuck the Mona Lisa up his smock and started a global underworld trend
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The Independent Culture

When an Italian decorator called Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the world's most famous painting under his smock a century ago today, he had little idea of the global trend he would spawn. Since the theft of the Mona Lisa on 21 August 1911, art heists have become an increasingly common crime.

This week an American, Mark Lugo, 30, will appear in court accused of stealing a Picasso from a San Francisco gallery. The 1965 Tête de Femme is worth more than £120,000. Mr Lugo denies stealing it, though it was found, cut from its frame, in his apartment.

According to Interpol, art crime is one of the underworld's growth areas, trailing only the drug trade and arms sales in value. One FBI estimate puts theft, fraud and trafficking in stolen art at around $6bn (£3.6bn) per year.

Richard Ellis, a former Scotland Yard detective who now runs Art Management Group, which advises on artwork security, says the theft of art has spiralled: "Police investigations are becoming increasingly parochial; people only look at crimes in their own area... The standard of investigation has fallen and the rate of recovery has fallen." He believes the increase is down to stolen artworks being used as currency by organised crime. The return of stolen works may also be offered as bargaining chips by criminals in any dealings with the police.

Audacious heists such as the break-in at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum on 31 December 1999 may capture the public imagination, but experts worry that art crime is unduly admired. Charles Hill, former head of art and antiques at Scotland Yard, now a freelance art detective, says: "It's more glamorous than stealing hubcaps or dealing drugs, but it's a dreadful crime. They are trying to deny all of us the aesthetic value of masterpieces."

Mr Hill also points out that art burglars include some of the most hateful figures of the 20th century. "The biggest art theft of the century was the looting of art by the Nazis from 1934-45," he says. "The second biggest was the Soviets from 1945-47."

Here The IoS has assembled some of the art heists of the century.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

When Kempton Bunton heard the Government had paid £140,000 to stop a Goya painting of Wellington being sold to a US collector he was enraged. Bunton, with an income of £8, was incensed at high TV licence fees. He stole the painting from the National Gallery in 1961, and issued a statement asking for £140,000 to help the poor pay for TV licences. This was declined. Four years later the work was found at a train station after a tip-off by Bunton, who then turned himself in.

The Mona Lisa

On 21 August 1911 the world's most famous painting was stolen from under the noses of Louvre security guards. Despite arresting the poet Apollinaire, police had to admit their investigation was getting nowhere. The theft became so notorious that thousands came just to stare at the empty wall. It turned out an Italian decorator, Vincenzo Peruggia, had simply walked out with it under his smock. He was caught in 1913 after he tried to sell it in Florence, after which it returned to the Louvre.

Stephane Breitwieser: master thief

Stephane Breitwieser admitted stealing 239 artworks worth an estimated £960m from 172 museums across Europe. His first theft was in March 1995, and he averaged one every 15 days until he was captured in November 2001. Some of the works were thrown into a French canal. When his mother heard of his arrest she shredded many of them in her garbage disposal unit.


Just before midnight on 31 December 1999, thieves took advantage of the millennium firework displays and pared-back security to pull a raid on Oxford's Ashmolean Musuem. Breaking in through a skylight, they let off smoke bombs which clouded CCTV and set off fire alarms that distracted guards. They got away with Cezanne's Auvers-sur-Oise. Worth an estimated £4m, it remains unaccounted for, amid suspicions that it was stolen to order by a collector.

Madonna of the Yarnwinder

Two thieves posing as tourists on a tour of Drumlanrig Castle managed to make off with one of the world's most valuable artworks: Da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder now valued at between £25m and £80m. The two men overpowered a student guide, unbolted a window and scaled down the outside wall with alarms going off around them. They told the Duke of Buccleuch that "something very silly" would happen to it if he did not pay a ransom of £4.5m. The painting was retrieved in October 2007 and four men were charged with theft.

Boston burglars

Two men dressed as police officers managed to pull off the biggest art heist in US history in 1990, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They told guards they were responding to calls of disturbance and then handcuffed them. Their haul included a Vermeer, five Degas drawings and three Rembrandts, which today would be worth around £350m. They have not been recovered. This year's arrest of Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger has led some to believe he may have played a role.

Manchester art heist

Despite CCTV, alarms and security guards, three paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin worth £1m were stolen from the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester in 2003. The works were found the next day crammed into a tube in a public toilet. A note attached to them said: "We didn't intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security." The authorities were sceptical, believing the thieves realised they wouldn't be able to sell the works.

The Italian job

The heist at the Ducal Palace in Urbino remains one of the world's most potentially lucrative raids. Two paintings by Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ and The Madonna of Senigallia, and Raphael's La Muta were stolen in 1975. Local criminals were suspected. But they quickly realised that such pieces are impossible to sell. The paintings were recovered undamaged in Locarno, Switzerland, two years later.

The Scream

It took thieves 50 seconds to make off with Munch's most famous work from Oslo's National Gallery in 1994. The pair, incuding Paal Enger, smashed a window, leaving a postcard of a painting by Marit Walle depicting three men laughing, with a message of thanks for the poor security. The Scream, worth an estimated £37m, was recovered three months later.


Two panels of Van Eyck's 15th-century masterpiece were stolen from St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934. A ransom note asked the bishop for a million Belgian francs. One panel was returned in a show of good faith, but the church refused to negotiate with criminals. The main suspect, Arsene Goedertier, died that year and whispered with his dying breath that he was the last man on earth to know the location of the missing panel. It has never been found.