Munch’s maddening masterpiece and the history of heists

Published May 7, 2024

On May 7, 1994, Edvard Munch’s first version of “The Scream” was recovered three months after being stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Inspired by Kevin McCallister an apparent panic attack, the famous painting was gone in 50 seconds, on the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in nearby Lillehammer. The thieves broke through a window–setting off an alarm that security apparently ignored–cut the picture wire, and even left a note reading “Thanks for the poor security.”

Norwegian authorities called in Scotland Yard to assist, and the story of their sting operation is worth a quick read (a highlight: the undercover cops unwittingly set up a meeting during a police convention their colleagues were attending). Ultimately, though, four men were convicted in connection with the theft, including one who had already done time for stealing Munch’s “The Vampire” in 1988.

Let’s have a look at some other intriguing art heists!

1473: Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment

In the first recorded art heist, a group of Polish buccaneers lifted this recently-completed triptych by the Flemish Memling (say that five times fast). A Bruges-based director of the Medici bank had commissioned the painting for a chapel near Florence, but it was intercepted in transit by Paul Beneke’s pirate crew, who delivered it instead to a cathedral in Gdansk. Its owner sued in the papal courts of the time, but Beneke claimed his heist was a legitimate act of war (the Hanseatic League was at war with England at the time). We’re not sure what that had to do with anything, but apparently the argument worked: The painting is still at the National Museum in Gdansk.

1911: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

It was an inside guy who stole what is now the world’s most famous painting. As a handyman at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia installed protective glass cases onto the paintings; he simply hid in a closet until the museum closed, then walked out with it. Unfortunately for him, the world media noticed the theft, and the large reward for its return; Peruggio stashed the painting in a trunk for a few years, then got dimed out by an art dealer who feigned interest in buying it. Peruggia served seven months in jail–and the furore only served to raise the Mona Lisa’s profile.

1985: Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, and eight other. 

On October 27, masked thieves entered the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris and held 49 people at gunpoint for five minutes while they stole nine paintings, including Monet’s ur-Impressionist canvas. In 1987, investigators in Japan got a tip that a yakuza member possessed a French painting from an unrelated theft; it turned out he had masterminded the Marmottan heist as well, along with some art thieves he met while doing time in Paris for heroin trafficking. The cops retrieved the paintings without incident.

2010, Poppy Flowers, Vincent Van Gogh

This thief simply stood on a couch, cut the painting out of the frame, rolled it up, and strolled out of the museum with it. None of the paintings’ alarms were operating that day, nor were 36 of the 43 security cameras at the Cairo museum, so it’s little wonder that 15 officials were charged with negligence (11 caught prison time). Fourteen years later, the painting is still missing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *