The theft of famous works of art always piques my interest! Who doesn’t love a good mystery and the question always remains “Will we ever see the work of art again?”
Unfortunately, when works of art this well-known are stolen, there isn’t often an easy way to sell them. They can never be sold on the open market because they will be recognized, and the thieves convicted. They can be sold on the black market or used to fund organized crime, but these are risky escapades that force thieves to carefully cover their tracks. Thus, authorities fear that in many cases the art gets destroyed once the thieves realize how difficult it is to move them. That being said, the hope is that these works are hanging on a wall somewhere, perhaps unbeknownst to the current owner, or stored in a basement, attic or storage unit, just waiting to be found!
Below are five famous works of art that have been stolen and are yet to be discovered.
1. Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence by Caravaggio
Through the beginning of the 20th century, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) remained mostly obscure in popular culture. However, in the 1960’s his popularity began to rise, and he became perhaps the best-known artist of the Italian Baroque period. In 1969, two thieves decided to steal Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. Leaving behind its frame, the thieves walked away with a painting estimated to be worth around $20 million dollars. To this day, this work remains in the top 10 on the FBI’s Art Crime list.
To check out more stolen art and resources regarding it visit the FBI Art Theft website.
2. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (van Rjn)
Perhaps the most notorious art theft is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. If you have somehow missed this crazy story, Netflix released a special about it “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” which debuted in 2021, just after the 30th anniversary of the theft.
To quickly synthesize the event, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1990 two thieves, dressed as police officers, walked into the Gardner Museum and walked out with 13 works of art including Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. This work is Rembrandt’s (1609-1669) only seascape. The Gardner museum leaves the frame empty in hopes of its return.
3. Francis Bacon by Lucien Freud
On May 27th, 1988, Lucian Freud’s (1922-2011) 1952 portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The work has never been found and was the only portrait of Bacon by his close friend. Freud himself designed the above wanted poster for his work. However, the work has never been found or whispered about since. Hopefully, one day it will return!
4. Portrait of Trude Steiner by Gustav Klimt
Famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), painted this portrait of Trude Steiner around 1900. The Steiner’s fled from the Nazi’s in 1938 and the painting was lost. It is thought that the work was taken by the Nazi’s that same year. In 1941, it was sold at an auction in April. Since that auction, no information on the location of the portrait has been found.
For that matter other works stolen by the Nazi’s and still missing include the Boulevard Montmartre at Twilight by Camille Pissarro, the Painter on the Road to Tarascon by Vincent Van Gogh and Portrait of a Young Man by Hans Memling, among many others.
5. Charing Cross Bridge, London by Claude Monet
Famed French-Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) created this work and a work called Waterloo Bridge. Both works were stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in October of 2012. Initially suspects were a gang of thieves who were apprehended in Romania in July 2013. A mother of a member of the gang told the police she had burned the works, but later denied this in court. Therefore, it is still unknown if the works still exist or have been casualties of this unfortunate event.
Finally, for all you hopefuls out there I decided to add one work of art that was stolen, lost and finally recovered.
Woman- Ochre by Dutch American abstract artist Willem De Kooning (1904-1997) was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson in 1985. Thieves cut the work out of the frame and walked out with it.
In 2017, it was rediscovered at the estate sale for Jerry and Rita Alter. The thieves were described to be a man and a woman, but the Alter’s family members did not think that Jerry and Rita would be capable of stealing it.
Therefore, the actual thieves are still unknown. Was it Jerry and Rita Alter, or someone else? The recovery of Woman-Ochre gives us hope for some of the other works on this list. Perhaps one day the works will be reunited with the museums, owners and public. However, more than likely they are lost forever.
Ryman, Anne, “Who stole the de Kooning? Clues emerge in theft of $100M ‘Woman-Ochre’” The Republic, azcentral, Aug 1 2018, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-best-reads/2018/08/01/art-heist-woman-ochre-clues-emerge-willem-de-kooning-painting-recovered/789652002/
Schoppert, Stephanie, “10 pieces of Art Stolen by the Nazis that are Still Missing Today,” The History Collection, September 27 2019, https://historycollection.com/10-pieces-art-stolen-nazis-still-missing-today/2/
White, Gemma “Eight stolen artworks that are still missing including Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso” The National News, Jun 9 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/art/2022/06/09/eight-stolen-artworks-that-are-still-missing-including-monet-van-gogh-and-picasso/#:~:text=Eight%20stolen%20artworks%20that%20are%20still%20missing%20including,thin%20air%20%27Poppy%20Flowers%27%20by%20Vincent%20van%20Gogh.