Last week I was visiting a friend, and we were watching an English art program called Fake or Fortune and somehow we got talking about art crime. This lead to the question, “what was the most expensive painting ever stolen?” Like all such arguments, the definitions and boundaries got somewhat blurred.
Did we mean art that was permanently lost, or did it have to be just a single painting?
What if several were stolen together?
Looted WWII Treasure
My first thought was that the most significant art theft of all time had to be the organized theft of Billions of dollars worth of art treasure by the Nazis in World War II.
There is still an ESTIMATED $37 BILLION MISSING.
Although it took place right across Europe and Africa at different times, I felt that it was a single crime because it was part of one centrally organized plan.. My friend disagreed.
We eventually agreed to discount World War II.
The Mona Lisa
Next, we came to the Mona Lisa, which is ESTIMATED TO BE VALUED TODAY AT $860 MILLION. Back in August 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.
Remarkably it was 26 hours before anyone noticed it was taken! Eventually, it was recovered, and the thief was an Italian who wanted the artwork returned to and displayed in Italy.
He stated it should not be returned to France because NAPOLEON HAD ORIGINALLY STOLEN IT FROM ITALY!
The thief was not looking for personal gain but saw it as a return of a stolen painting.
Although, in fact, he was incorrect as to the “theft,” and the situation was much more complicated.
Now, this took us down a long detour about whether you can steal a stolen painting.
There were also all sorts of rumors about whether the Mona Lisa was a forgery, and the discussion got very complicated and prolonged.
So we agreed to put the Mona Lisa aside based on uncertainty about what really happened and the fact the painting (or forgery) had been recovered.
So, armed with our new definition of “a single painting that was stolen and not recovered,” we were finally able to pursue our discussion, and we reached a mutual agreement.
The most expensive painting ever stolen was[imaginary drumroll] ….
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).
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”
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.
James “Whitey” Bulger
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
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 we have at the moment are theories and unverified facts.
It may be that we will never know what happened to these works of art; many of the people who were gang leaders at the time are now very old, and some have already died.
Maybe the secret of who took the 13 pieces, (including the most expensive painting ever stolen) the Concert by Vermeer and their current whereabouts, will never be known.
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