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5 World’s Most Famous Museum Heists in History

From the daring “Mona Lisa” theft to the audacious Green Vault robbery, real-life heists rival Hollywood dramas. London’s Metropolitan Police recently confirmed the launch of an investigation into the disappearance, theft, or damage of museum treasures.

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These treasures include semi-precious stones and gold jewelry dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. The incident involved an employee at the museum, who has been dismissed, and “legal action” is pending.

The Louvre Museum in Paris
The Louvre Museum in Paris. Source| Wikimedia

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While the outgoing museum director, Hartwig Fischer, described the situation as “highly unusual” and announced tightened security measures, such audacious thefts are not unusual. Here are five notorious heists that made global headlines:

1. The “Mona Lisa” Heist (1911)

Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian glazier, famously stole Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. On August 21, 1911, during maintenance closure, Peruggia evaded security, removed the painting from its frame, concealed it under his smock, and walked out of the museum.

An image of Vincenzo Peruggia holding The Monalisa portrait after successfully stealing it in 1911. Source: Wanted in Rome.

He stashed it in his Paris apartment until 1913 when he attempted to sell it to an antiques dealer in Italy. Peruggia served just eight months in prison and was hailed by some as a hero for temporarily returning the masterpiece to its native country.

2. The “Skylight Caper” (1972)

Canada’s largest art heist occurred at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972. Masked thieves accessed the museum’s roof, descended through a skylight, and subdued security guards, stealing 18 paintings.

Bill Bantey, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ director of public relations, is seen showing photos of the 18 paintings stolen in 1972. Source| CNN

Amongst the stolen paintings were Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages, and 30-plus pieces of jewelry. No one has been charged, and only two items have been recovered to date.

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3. The Boston Museum Heist (1990)

The infamous 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston featured thieves posing as police officers who handcuffed security guards and stole 13 artworks.

Left: Missing portrait of Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Right: The actual portrait. Source| The Collector

Yet again, Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was included and Vermeer’s The Concert. The stolen art, valued at approximately $500 million, remains missing, as do the culprits.

4. The Paris Museum of Modern Art Heist (2010)

In 2010, Vjéran Tomic, alias, career cat burglar, or “Spider-Man,” entered the Museum of Modern Art in Paris after removing a window without detection.

Vjéran Tomic. Source| Challenges

He made off with paintings by Braque, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso worth over $100 million. Tomic was arrested in 2011, but the stolen paintings remain elusive.

5. The Green Vault Robbery (2019)

In 2019, the Green Vault museum within Germany’s Dresden Castle fell victim to a daring jewelry heist. Thieves initiated a fire to deactivate streetlights, entered the museum, cut through iron bars, and shattered glass cabinets while unarmed security guards watched helplessly on CCTV.

Inside The Green Vault Museum in Germany. Source| Wikimedia

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Over $123 million worth of jewels and artifacts, including diamonds and rubies, were taken. Five men from a German crime family confessed to the crime this year and received sentences of up to six years. However, some items such as a diamond-encrusted sword are still missing.

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