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World's greatest art thefts

October 21, 2005 16:10 IST

The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, when the self-styled Marques Eduardo de Valfierno paid three men to steal it from the Louvre in Paris, is usually seen as the first great art heist of the 20th century.

Since that time, countless thousands of works of major and minor art have been stolen, whether by professional thieves or as the result of war. The extraordinary thing is not how many pieces have been stolen but how many have been recovered.

World's Top 5 Art Thefts



Where and when


Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

United Kingdom, August 1961


Piero della Francesco's The Flagellation of Christ and The Madonna of Senigallia, and Raphael's The Mute

Italy, February 1975


Renoir's Bathers, Monet's Impression, Soleil Levant.

France, November 1985


Jade & gold pieces from the Maya, Aztec, Zapotec and Miztec sculptures.

Mexico, December 1985


Two paintings by Fra Angelico and Chardin's Rayfish With Basket of Onions.

United States, February 1988

Sadly, though, while the following list of the world's greatest postwar art thefts reveals that most of the work stolen from museums, galleries and private collections has been returned, many are still missing.

Whether this is a comment on collectors' mania to possess a work of art regardless of the consequences, or the fact that the thieves are unable to locate a buyer, is unknowable--but it's usually one or the other.

The theft of treasure is nothing new--it is one of folklore's most persistent themes--but thanks to novels, films and the newspaper headlines, art theft has captured the public's imagination like few other types of crime have.

Maybe it's the combination of the thrill in breaking the law, the large sums of money and the beauty of the works involved that fascinate us so much.

From Pre-Columbian artifacts to Modern masterpieces, click here to read about the 12 greatest art thefts of recent times.

Anthony Haden-Guest, Forbes