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Six of History's Most Incredible Art Heists

Stolen: Hans Memling, panels of The Last Judgment Location: Florence, Italy Year Stolen: 1473

It’s probably not surprising that the first recorded art heist in history involves pirates. Polish buccaneers lead by Paul Benecke attacked the Florence-bound ship transporting The Last Judgment (1467 — 1471), stole the three panels, and brought them over to a cathedral in Gdańsk. “Although this piracy provides a terminus ante quem for the triptych, the date of its commission is a matter of heated debate. For years, its authorship was also controversial, but technical examination of the painting till today supports its traditional attribution to Hans Memling.” At this time, however, the panels can be found at Poland’s National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe).

Stolen: Thomas Gainsborough, Duchess of Devonshire Location: London, England Year Stolen: 1876

The story of this painting and its heist is quite fascinating. Criminal Adam Worth heard his brother was in jail, so he stole Gainsborogh’s Duchess of Devonshire (1783) from the Thomas Agnew & Sons Gallery with the intention of selling it to post his sibling's bail. After he committed the heist, Worth learned his brother was actually free, so the wanted conman and forgery connoisseur decided to keep the painting. When it was finally recovered years later, financial heavyweight J.P. Morgan quickly snatched it up at auction.

“Around midnight on May 25, 1876, Worth sets out for Agnew's gallery with his bodyguard and butler, Jack (Junka) Phillips…Climbing on Junka's shoulders, Worth clambers into the upstairs gallery, carefully cuts the painting from its frame and shins back down the uncomplaining Junka… For a quarter-century Worth keeps the painting… hidden in a false-bottomed trunk. The ‘Noble Lady,’ as he calls her, now accompanies Worth on a fresh series of crimes, the most notable being the theft of $600,000 in uncut gems from the South African diamond mines at Kimberley in 1882.”

Stolen: Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa

Location: Paris, France Year Stolen: 1911

On August 21st, 1911, an amateur painter looking to practice his skills arrived at the Louvre’s Salon Carré, where Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503 —1506) was normally found. But, the painting was missing. While the search for the stolen artwork went on for two years, the effort yielded numerous false leads and no concrete results. Then, in December of 1913, an Italian house painter contacted a prominent Florentine art dealer claiming to be in possession of the missing portrait, which he had apparently been storing in the false bottom of his trunk for the last couple of years.

The culprit turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee, who was responsible for putting protective glass over the artworks. On the day he stole the celebrated Renaissance portrait, Peruggia arrived to the museum at 7am, walked in unnoticed, removed the artwork from its frame, covered it with his clothing, and casually walked out. He served six months in jail, and was regarded as a national hero in his native Italy.

Stolen: Francisco de Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington Location: London, England Year Stolen: 1961

Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1812 — 1814) received high-profile media coverage after an American collector offered $392,000 to purchase the artwork. People were outraged, because they didn’t want the famous painting to go abroad. So was Kempton Bunton. To prevent it from happening, on August 21st, 1961, Bunton lifted Goya's portrait from the walls of the National Gallery after climbing in through a toilet window. Then, he demanded a ransom for the same amount, claiming he wanted to use it to buy TV licenses for the poor.

“When in July 1965 a 61-year-old retired truck driver announced at West End Central police station that he had stolen the Goya, it was hard for the police to take Kempton Bunton seriously as he differed so much from the presumed image of whoever it was who had sent a sequence of notes, written in capitals, to various newspapers.” Bumpton returned the painting voluntarily, and was subsequently jailed for three months after his defense successfully argued that he had stolen only the frame and not the painting itself.

Stolen: Rembrandt, Jacob De Gheyn III Location: London, England Year Stolen: 1981

Rembrandt’s painting of Jacob De Gheyn III ( 1632) has been stolen an astounding four times to date. What makes this even more bizarre is the fact that no one has ever been apprehended for the thefts; the portrait has always just shown up. It is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently stolen artwork.

“Shortly after midnight on December 31,1966, thieves employing a drill and a brace to knock out a panel from a seldom-used oak door broke into the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. They stole Rembrandt’s painting Jacob de Gheyn III, two other Rembrandts, and works by Peter Paul Rubens, Gerard Dou, and Adam Elsheimer…It was eventually recovered, only to be stolen and recovered three more times — in 1973, 1981, and 1983. The painting…has become known as the ‘Takeaway Rembrandt.’”

Stolen: 124 pieces of pre-Columbian jewelry

Location: Mexico City, Mexico Year Stolen: 1985

Imagine working at world-renowned museum. Now, imagine walking into work on Christmas morning and realizing that several million dollars worth of unique and irreplaceable artifacts were suddenly missing. This is exactly what happened at the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, when Carlos Perches Trevino and Ramon Sardina pulled off one of the biggest thefts in museum history:

“After celebrating Christmas Eve with their families...perches drove them to the museum in his Volkswagen…carrying a canvas suitcase, the two crawled through an air conditioning duct into a projection room in the basement of the museum's Maya Room. It took them 30 minutes to clean out 124 of the best pieces from three rooms. They left the museum the same way they had entered, without ever seeing a security guard.”

The stolen objects included gold jewelry, a Mayan jade mask and the mask of a Zapotec bat god, an Aztec obsidian vase in the form of a monkey, as well as various Mayan sculptures; 111 of the artifacts have been recovered.

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