The Shocking Story Behind The Most Expensive Painting Ever Stolen

Most Expensive painting ever stolen

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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. What makes this story shocking is that it was not insure, it was not protected and it has never been found!

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.

List of Stolen Paintings (Still Missing)

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

Here is a list of stolen paintings that are still missing:

A full list of of stolen paintings, 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? Missing Art

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 when it comes to missing art.

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.

Has any Missing art ever been found?

Yes, many stolen artworks have been found over the years, although some remain missing or lost. The recovery of stolen art is often a complex and time-consuming process that involves a collaboration between law enforcement agencies, art dealers, and collectors.

In 1994, “The Scream,” one of Edvard Munch’s most famous paintings, was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo during a brazen heist. The painting was taken in less than a minute after the thieves broke in through a window. However, the artwork was recovered three months later, unharmed, in a hotel room located 40 miles away.

Other well known and reputedly missing art are:

“Woman Dressing Her Hair,” by Pablo Picasso. It was never reported stolen but somehow recovered in 2016 in Turkey by local police. MoMA has stated that this is actually a copy of Picasso’s painting. Who knows!

“Panayia Kanakaria church mosaic” – During the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, a sixth-century mosaic of St. Mark was looted from the Panayia Kanakaria church. The Byzantine artwork, estimated to be worth between $5.7 million and $11.4 million, was purchased by a British family who were unaware that it had been stolen. In 2018, the family agreed to return the mosaic to the people of Cyprus. The recovery of the artwork was facilitated by the renowned art investigator and historian, Arthur Brand.

“”Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” Hubert and Jan van Eyck – more commonly known as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” it has a long and tumultuous history. Claimed to be the world’s first oil painting, it has been the subject of theft, destruction, and obsession by various historical figures. Napoleon once stole the painting, while it narrowly avoided being destroyed in a Calvinist riot. During World War II, it caught the attention of Hitler and Goring, only to be rescued by the Monuments Men (there is a movie based on them of the same name).

These are just a few examples of recovered missing art and what is surprising is how many have been recovered by sheer luck or as part of a totally separate investigation. In some cases, missing art is recovered through tips and leads from the public or from other criminals involved in the theft. Technology has also played a role in the recovery of stolen art, with the use of databases and digital image recognition software to identify and track missing artworks.

However, the recovery of missing art can be difficult and is not always successful. Some stolen artworks may be dismantled and sold in pieces, making it challenging to identify and recover them. Additionally, some stolen art may be smuggled across international borders, making it difficult for law enforcement to track and recover.

Despite these challenges, the recovery of stolen art remains an important priority for the art world and for law enforcement agencies. Through collaborative efforts and the use of advanced technology and investigative techniques, many stolen artworks have been successfully recovered and returned to their rightful owners.

Salvator Mundi: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

If you wanted to know what the most expensive painting ever sold is then you would love to know that it is the Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci.

Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

Salvator Mundi is a painting of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World that was created by Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci, in the 16th century. The painting is known for its stunning detail and expression, and has been widely regarded as one of the most significant works of art in history.

In 2017, Salvator Mundi became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction when it was purchased for a record-breaking $450 million by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud. The sale generated worldwide attention and sparked controversy, with some critics questioning the authenticity and condition of the painting.

Despite the controversy surrounding the sale, Salvator Mundi remains a significant work of art that has captured the imagination of people around the world. The painting is a testament to the incredible talent and creativity of Leonardo da Vinci, and serves as a reminder of the enduring power and beauty of art.

Today, Salvator Mundi is considered a priceless masterpiece that represents a significant chapter in the history of art. While its true value may never be fully realized, the painting continues to inspire and captivate art lovers and collectors around the world.

The Most Expensive Painting Ever Stolen – Wrap up!

Of all the expensive paintings stolen, of the most expensive painting ever stolen all we have at the moment are theories and unverified facts. We don’t even have great photographs of the painting so that if a well made forgery were to appear, it would be difficult to prove it was not real.

We will never know what happened to The Concert by Vermeer; 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… which at the time of writing is the most expensive painting in the world.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and learned quite a few new things about the most expensive painting ever stolen, the most expensive painting in the world and also learned that there is a sad list of stolen paintings that have never been recovered. If you did and feel others may benefit, feel free to share this post.

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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