Stolen Art: How Five Masterpieces Vanished

Take a closer look at five stolen art pieces by iconic masters like Caravaggio and Raphael. While new evidence has emerged in investigations, their exact locations remain unknown.

Jun 30, 2020By Jacqueline Martinez, BA English Writing
isabella stewart gardner museum raphael
Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by Sean Dungan (left) and Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael, 1513 (right)


Art theft is a crime so widespread that the International Police maintains a database that records over 50,000 pieces of stolen art. The FBI also created a list of Top 10 Art Crimes that includes work by Caravaggio, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Below, we’ll take a look at five of the most valuable stolen art pieces that no one has found. You’ll also learn about the events leading to some of these heists, and the clues that thieves left behind.


Stolen Art And The Gardner Heist: The Concert By Johannes Vermeer

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The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, 1664, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


On March 18th, 1990, two thieves stole the Vermeer from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. They completed the robbery in 81 minutes.  Around 1:00 AM, they pulled up next to the museum side entrance and entered wearing police uniforms. They convinced the staff they were responding to a disturbance before locking them in the basement. By 2:45 AM, the thieves escaped with 13 stolen art pieces. 


In 2010, the notorious art thief Myles Connor published a book titled The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Thief. In it, he claimed that an old friend, David Houghton, told him Robert Donati was one of the thieves. Houghton intended to use this information as leverage to release Connor from prison. Unfortunately, both Houghton and Donati had long been dead by the time he published the book. Houghton died in 1991, and Donati, who was a Boston mob associate, was stabbed and beaten to death the same year. 


Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), who was an American patron and the arts, had acquired this piece for 31,175 Francs in 1892. Today, experts estimate its value to be around $200 million. 


Heist Negotiations: Storm On The Sea Of Galilee By Rembrand

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Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee by Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1633, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

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Rembrandt’s most famous example of stolen art and his only known work of a seascape, was also taken in the Gardner Heist. It became part of a sensational story that led investigators to a dead end. 


In 1997, William P Youngworth III, an antiques dealer with connections to Myles Connor, claimed to have the piece. He offered to return the Rembrandt in exchange for money, Connor’s release from prison, and the dismissal of pending crime charges against him. That same year, a writer for the Boston Herald, Tom Mashberg, published a story claiming that Youngworth led him into a warehouse containing the Rembrandt. 


isabella stewart gardner museum
Interior of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston 


Investigators followed this lead, but they needed proof that Youngworth possessed the paintings. Youngworth sent them paint chips which supposedly came from Gardner’s two lost Rembrandts: The Sea of Galilee and Landscape with an Obelisk. Authorities compared the chips to the flakes left behind on the slashed frames in the Museum but determined they were not a match. 


Still, some speculate that Youngworth’s late wife, Judy, may have hidden the real paintings. The Gardner museum continues to search for all 13 pieces and offers $10 million in exchange for information leading to their direct discovery.


Multiple Thefts: Poppy Flowers By Vincent Van Gogh 

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Poppy Flowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887, The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, Amsterdam


Van Gogh’s famous stolen art piece, Poppy Flowers was taken twice. The first time, thieves took it in 1977. Authorities discovered it in an undisclosed location in Kuwait, but did not reveal any more information. The second time was on August 21st, 2010. This time, it hasn’t turned up in the last ten years.


Poppy Flowers was housed in the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt. That day, research estimates that there were only about 10 visitors in the museum. It was a warm afternoon, and the thief sliced the painting out of its frame with a boxcutter in broad daylight. The culprit escaped with hardly any evidence to catch them because only 7 of the 43 security cameras in the museum were working. In addition, reporter Hadeel Al-Shalchi criticized the museum staff’s negligence, describing that they were sleeping or browsing their phones while the thief got away.


The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo
The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo


Egypt’s Culture Minister, Farouk Hosni, momentarily announced that the government recovered the piece from an Italian couple at a Cairo airport. This report turned out to be false. A year later, the nation’s Interior Minister, Habib Al-Aldy, remarked, ” There are many circumstances around the theft of the Poppy Flowers that point to the fact that a museum employee participated in the theft or stole it himself.” Despite this report, he has not commented further on which employee that might have been. 


Egyptian billionaire and art collector Naguib Sawiris offered $175,000 for information leading to its discovery. However, experts estimate Poppy Flowers to be worth about $55 million.


World War II: Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael

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Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael, 1513, The Division for Looted Art


In 1939, the stolen art piece Portrait of a Young Man stood in the Princess Czartoryski Museum in Poland. Marian Kukiel, the Museum Director, felt alarmed at the increasing tension of World War II. She ordered that the museum treasure, including this Raphael, be evacuated to Sieniawa, but German forces plundered the collection on September 18th, 1939. Hitler had plans to establish a massive museum in Linz, so German authorities drew a plan on how to divide the art between the Führer, the pending museums, and other German authorities.


In 1942, Governor-General Hans Frank appointed Swiss architect Wilhelm Ernst von Palézieux to design his various residencies across Poland. Portrait of a Young Man, which had been stored in a German Bank, was returned to Poland to be included in these plans. Yet, three years later, the Russian Army was closing in on the country and the Germans had to escape.


The Princess Czartoryski Museum Interior, Kraków 
The Princess Czartoryski Museum Interior, Kraków 


This is when the Raphael painting disappeared. Palézieux had orders to put all the artwork in three crates and send them to Neuhaus, Germany. But the stolen art piece never made it, and efforts to question Palézieux among others have presented no new evidence of what happened. The last place the portrait was seen was in January 1945, at the Wawel Castle in Poland.


Historians believe this painting to be a self-portrait, and estimate its worth to range between $100-850 million. This estimation makes it one of the most valuable stolen art pieces that have yet to be found.


The Mafia and Stolen Art: Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio

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Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence by Caravaggio, 1600


On October 17th, 1969, two thieves cut this painting from its frame in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. Locals say that in the 1960s, any crime in Palermo could be attributed to the local mafia. However, investigators’ attempts to interrogate them about the stolen art led to mixed responses. According to various sources, the painting was burned in a fire, eaten by pigs, or used by a mafioso as a bedside rug. Yet none of these created direct leads.


In 1996, Sicilian mafioso Francisco “Mozzarella” Marino Mannoia told a court that he was responsible for destroying the painting. A patron commissioned him to steal the piece, and Mannoia said he personally sawed it out of its frame. However, he wasn’t experienced in working with centuries-old art, and he made the mistake of rolling up the canvas. This effectively destroyed the stolen art piece, and the patron couldn’t accept the work anymore. 


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Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo. 


In contrast, new evidence from 2017 implied that the painting wasn’t destroyed, but may actually have gone to an unnamed Swiss art dealer. Gaetano Grado, a mafioso in charge of downtown Palermo, came forward to Italy’s Antimafia Commission. Grado said he was hired by a Sicilian mobster named Badamallenti to track the thieves. He succeeded in doing so, landing the Caravaggio in Badamallenti’s hands.  


Badamallenti showed the piece to a Swiss art dealer, who declared, “that he would cut it into pieces because it would not sell otherwise.” Although his name hasn’t been made public, the Antimafia Commission has determined that at least part of this record is true.


However, there’s speculation that this could not have been done by one man alone, due to the surgical level precision used to cut it from its frame. This work remains among the Top 10 Art Crimes on the FBI’s list and is estimated to be about $20 million.

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By Jacqueline MartinezBA English WritingJacqueline Martinez graduated with her BA in English (Writing & Rhetoric, to be fancy) in 2019. During her time in college, she worked in a Miami-based art gallery. She has attended major art fairs like Art Basel and Art Miami, recording new exhibitions and art trends in her articles. In 2018, she studied abroad in France, where she learned about art history in some of the world’s major museums. Since graduating, she has aimed to keep learning while passing on her experiences to those who are novices like she once was.