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Most expensive painting ever stolen (is it still missing?)

The most expensive painting ever stolen was The Concert by Vermeer. The painting was displayed at the ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER Museum, who owned the work but could not afford to insure it.

Had it been insured, no doubt the insurance company would have insisted on better security. The only security was two guards protecting the gallery (one patrolling and the other at the security desk).

So when was it stolen and was it ever recovered? Read on to learn more about the theft of The Concert by Vermeer plus other paintings that were stolen and never recovered.

Most expensive painting ever stolen - The Concert by Johannes (Jan) Vermeer
Most expensive painting ever stolen – The Concert by Johannes (Jan) Vermeer

When was The Concert by Vermeer stolen?

It was 1:24 am on March 18, 1990, when the thieves disguised as Boston Policemen rang the bell at the side door of the Museum and shouted to be let in because of a disturbance.

The young guard opened the door, and the “policemen” demanded identification from the guard, stating they had a warrant for his arrest.

They got the other guard from behind the desk (where the panic alarm was located) and then informed them it was a robbery.

During these conversations, the interesting point was that one of the thieves used the term “Mate” when talking to the guard.

The term Mate would not be one that an American would use in these circumstances but one which a British or Irish person would commonly say.

I will come back to that point later.

The thieves got away with 13 works of art, with a total value of $500 million.

Thirty years later, the artwork has still not been recovered despite huge rewards being posted.

Various theories abound about who was responsible for the theft. The three most credible theories are”

Was this an amateur theft?

Some people believe that it was not carried out by organized crime but some small-time thieves who had not thought things through very well.

The theft itself had been a bit of a shambles with paintings just cut from frames, and more valuable pieces ignored.

It is believed that eventually, these thieves panicked as they could not find a way to sell the proceeds of the theft, so they destroyed the artwork.

This could be why there have been no signs of the pieces after all these years.

Was The Concert by Vermeer stolen by James “Whitey” Bulger?

James 'Whitey' Bulger Mug Shot
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger Mug Shot

There is some evidence that a Boston Mob Boss James Bulger was involved by either instigating the heist or taking over the artworks soon after.

Anonymous letters suggested that the paintings were in a country where a buyer could take ownership (outside of the USA).

Bulger never admitted involvement, and the trail seemed to come to a dead end.

However, Bulger was arrested again, on another matter, in 2011 (aged 81), but he has still not admitted his role.

The British/Irish Connection in the theft of The Concert by Vermeer

There is also a suggestion that the artwork is held somewhere in Northern Ireland as collateral for a large arms purchase made by Irish Republicans and that as soon as the debt for the arms is repaid in full, the artwork will then be sold.

The Republicans do have a history of keeping large storage areas hidden for many years, so they would be more than capable of doing this.

However, if my own previous personal experience with IRA dumps is anything to go by, the conditions will be far from perfect for storing fragile artworks, and they could be ruined by now.

All that we know is that The Concert has never been recovered and is still missing.

What famous paintings are missing?

Apart from The Concert being the most expensive painting ever stolen, other priceless works of art were stolen and were never recovered.

Some of the famous paintings stolen and still missing are:

A full list of these painting, their images and indicative values are listed here. While most of these will never be listed under the most expensive painting ever stolen, some make up part of an art heist worth over $500,000,000!

Many more are rumored to have been destroyed or lost forever.

What artist has had the most paintings stolen?

It is no surprise that one of the most prolific artists of all time, Pablo Picasso, creating over 50,000 works of art in his lifetime is also the artist who has had the most paintings stolen.

Pablo Picasso has an estimated 1147 works of art stolen from various collections. Quite ironic given that Picasso was attributed to the saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, I guess the greatest artists are also the most stolen. Or are they?

If you are curious who rounds out the rest of a top 10 of artists with the most stolen artworks then next on the list is a relative unknown (to me anyway) American artist named Nick Lawrence who has had 557 works of art stolen. While this theft will probably not go down as an art heist, his artworks went missing from a shed warehouse when they were being moved due to a fire code violation.

The rest of the list is mostly a who’s who of modern artists, which may correlate to the number of works stolen as they were quite commercial during their lifetimes, churning out hundreds and thousands of artworks of varying sizes and styles:

  • Marc Chagall –      516
  • Karel Appel –      505
  • Salvador Dali –      504
  • Joan Miro –      478
  • David Levine –      343
  • Andy Warhol –     343
  • Rembrandt –     337
  • Peter Reinicke – 336

Where do stolen paintings go?

The simple answer to where do stolen paintings go is “we do not know”. If we work backwards, looking for what would drive someone to steal an artwork and not just any artwork but heavily guarded and expensive artworks then money is the main driver.

Given the risk associated with such a theft, how much money would entice someone or a group of thieves to pull an “art heist”? Quite a lot.

This leaves the target buyers for art theft to order as possibly 1. High net worth individuals 2. State actors (Governments, political leaders, dictators etc) 3. Organised Crime (which could cover all three categories).

Stolen paintings most likely end up in super private collections but most likely never seen by human eyes ever again. They would end up in a warehouse and catalogued for future sale to another high net worth individual, or crime syndicate.

If the artwork is stolen by a government, it may sit in storage until the work “miraculously re-appears again” and the state takes ownership of recovered stolen goods.

You see some countries have strange laws regarding stolen art. Take for example The Netherlands.

If ownership in stolen art, antiques or collectibles does not vest in the acquirer in good faith, is the new acquirer protected from a claim by the victim of theft after a certain period?

… Even a bad faith buyer can obtain legal title. In principle, the possessor of a stolen object becomes the rightful owner at the moment the right of the original owner to claim restitution expires, which is 20 years after the day of the theft (article 3:105 DCC and article 3:306 DCC). Again, different rules apply to cultural objects protected under the Heritage Act and cultural objects protected under EU Directive 2014/60 EU.

https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=f38485d2-4908-44de-b6ad-1519a9832a54

Conclusion

All we have at the moment are theories and unverified facts.

We will never know what happened to The Concert; many of the people who were gang leaders at the time are now very old, and some have already died. All we know is that The Concert is now forever the most expensive painting ever stolen.. unless someone decides to steal Salvator Mundi…

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and learned something new. If you did and feel others may benefit, feel free to share this post.

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