Poisoned Apple: Present day art thieves steal art along with public attention


Photo used with permission from Google Commons

The exterior of the Singer Laren museum, where an early Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen and not yet found.

Art heists seem like a thing of the past – long ago stories of disappearing artwork. However, these robberies are still prevalent in the present day.

In March 2020, as Covid-19 lockdowns began around the world, most major museums in Europe and North America closed their doors to visitors. In the midst of this, there was a heist at the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands, where thieves escaped with a priceless early Vincent van Gogh painting. It was taken by a robber who broke into the museum using a sledgehammer and got past multiple layers of security. As of 2021, the van Gogh painting has not yet been found. Unfortunately, it seems as if these thieves are taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit. 

Stolen works wind up either being found after years-long searches or are assumed to have been lost, though it is rare for the stolen art to get destroyed. However, the case that took place at the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam in 2012 may have resulted in destruction. It involved thieves moving works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Lucian Freud out of the institution in just three minutes. Five were arrested in connection with the heist. The mother of the man who led the heist later claimed she burned the works, though a forensic analysis of the ash was inconclusive and many believe she may have been lying.

While most heists on the list took place at museums, a few have also involved private collectors. One case occurred in Madrid in 2015, when thieves broke into the house of José Capelo, who owned several paintings by his friend, the British artist Francis Bacon. While Capelo was away in London, the thieves stole five Bacon paintings worth $33.3 million. Seven people were arrested in connection with the heist, and police recovered three of the five paintings in 2017. El País, a daily newspaper in Spain, called it “the greatest contemporary art heist in recent Spanish history.”

The Dresden jewelry heist, one of the largest art thefts ever committed, took place over the course of about one single minute. At 4 a.m., thieves cut the power at the Green Vault museum and ran off with riches that have been valued at a collected $1.2 billion by smashing an axe into a glass display case. Among the stolen works are some of the most famous jewelry objects in the world. By the end of 2020, four were arrested for the heist, though German police were still on the hunt for the jewels, which were still not recovered by the start of 2021.