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On the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and walked away with 13 masterpieces worth half of a billion dollars. Three decades after, it remains the largest unsolved art heist in history.
It took only 81 minutes for the thieves to lift works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan van Eyck, Édouard Manet, and Edgar Degas. Since then, attempts to capture the culprits have all failed, and now, the museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork. A separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the return of Antoine-Denis Chaudet’s Napoleonic “Eagle Finial” (1813-1814).
As the empty frames still hang on the Gardner’s walls, the British art and antique shipping company PACK & SEND is marking the 30th anniversary of the heist with a list of the 40 most important stolen or missing pieces of art. According to the company, the missing artworks have a combined value of nearly $1 billion.
According to reports, over 50,000 thefts occur each year, fuelling a black market business estimated at $6 billion. But only 10% percent of stolen artworks are ever recovered, as Newsweek reported in 2014. That, in part, is due to understaffed law enforcement agencies: The FBI has only 20 special agents dedicated to art theft and the US And the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit in the United Kingdom only has three officers (as of 2017).
However, stolen masterpieces do surface from time to time. Back in January, gardeners found a Gustav Klimt painting tucked in a wall of the same gallery it was stolen from in 1997. And in 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recovered more than 100 stolen paintings and artifacts after receiving a tip from an auctioneer. Now the department is looking for the original owners.
Here are the top 10 most valued stolen artworks, including the value of each and the institution from which it was stolen, according to PACK & SEND. (Notice that the top five are works that were stolen from the Gardner in 1990):
- Govaert Flinck, “Landscape with Obelisk” (1638) | Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990| Value: priceless
- Rembrandt van Rijn, “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (1633)| Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 | Value: priceless
- Jan van Eyck, “The Just Judges” (1430–32)| Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 | Value: priceless
- Édouard Manet, “Chez Tortoni” (C. 1875) | Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 | Value: priceless
- Johannes Vermeer, “The Concert” (C. 1665) | Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 | Value: $200 million
- Vincent van Gogh, “Poppy Flowers” (1887) | Stolen from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt in 2010 | Value: $55 million
- Claude Monet, “Charing Cross Bridge“(c. 1900) | Stolen from Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2012 | Value: $35 million
- Claude Monet, “Waterloo Bridge, London” (1903) | Stolen from Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2012| Value: $35 million
- Lucian Freud, “Frances Bacon” (1952) | Stolen from Neue Nationalgalerie, in Berlin, Germany in 1988 | Value: $35 million
- Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco” (1609) | Stolen from Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo, Italy | Value: $20 million
The former panels, removed in 2017, featured images dedicated to Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
One researcher, Jürgen Schick, estimated that over half of the region’s historical artworks have been stolen.
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