Art: Paintings, objects, sounds, words that carry History within. Who would not want to touch Michelangelo’s David even with the eyes closed, to feel the temperature of the marble and the shapes that his creator made emerge from the stone, imagining how the sculptor had the idea of making David a giant, how he draw the sketches, made the wax model and then worked it through the stone… or let the stone be alive, as he thought of his pieces of art?
Who would not want to watch, from a comfy sofa in the living room, Van Gogh’s Starry night, and compare those twirling stars with the skies outside the window, just next to the painting, imagining the painter’s view from his rooms’ window in the asylum where he was?
Of course no one has ever stolen the David -it would take forty thieves to do the job, like the forty men that carried it from Michelangelo’s studio to the Piazza della Signoria in Florence-, and no one has stolen Van Gogh’s Starry night, but there are not few wonderful pieces of art that have been stolen, including several works by Van Gogh. And here and there some of the most famous –or most valued- come out to the surface of the big sea of stolen art pieces. Here are ten of them:
10 Portrait of a young man (1513-1514) by Raphael
A self portrait, or so the experts think! A young man staring outside the frame, like it is common in the paintings from the Renaissance: Raphael staring at the viewer, at all the viewers through time. A man with the gesture of the Renaissance, with the manierism that humanizes the male portraits, and an open space in the back window. A portrait travelling in time from the sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It traveled from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, where it was stolen by the Nazis in 1939, to Germany, at the Hitler’s residence in Berlin. Raphael staring into the darkness, for the painting has not been seen after 1945, where it was taken by Hans Frank, a nazi that took it back to Krakow, to his residence in the Wawel Castle. It is said that, if this portrait reappeared today, it would be valued at 100 million dollars.
9 Francis Bacon (1962) by Lucian Freud
Another portrait. A contemporary one. A man that is not looking out of the frame but –may be- to his thoughts; may be sick of modelling, sick of life – Freud himself described Bacon as someone to be known to constantly complain. The painting was stolen in 1988 from the Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie.
An artist will always be an artist, and when the painting was stolen, Freud transformed the theft in a form of art: he made a “Wanted” poster that looked like the ones from the far west. But the painting went to the silence, as there was never a rumor, a story, a note, or anyone asking for ransom. Nothing!! Not even after the reward of 300,000 German Marks, not even after the death of the painter in 2011. Freud once said that the thief was probably one of Bacon’s students, but it was nothing more than speculation.
8 Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius (1727)
Because art is not just in Museums but also in Concert Halls, one of the famous stolen art pieces is a violin. A musical instrument is not commonly considered a piece of art per se, but in combination with a talented player, it creates the most beautiful and rich sounds that lift music to a higher level. Plus, no instrument has the quality of sound that Stradivarius have.
This violin was made in Cremona, Italy, by the talented luthier, Antonio Stradivari. It was stolen in 1995 from Erica Morini’s appartment in Manhattan. She died a short time after, as if the bond between violinist and violin had shattered life in both of them. The violin has never been found. It is valued in 3 million dollars.
7 The just judges (1426-1432) by Jan Van Eyck
The bottom left panel of the twelve panel altarpiece of the Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium disapeared in 1934, and was replaced by a note: “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles”. Like a thief from a novel, this thief apparently liked to leave a trace in code. Thirteen notes were sent asking for a ramson of 1 million Belgian Francs. Ransom was never paid. The fourteenth letter was never sent. Arsene Goedertier, the suspected thief, told a lawyer friend in his bed of death, that he had the documents regarding The Just Judges: a copy of all the letters. The fourteenth said that the painting was in a place where it would attract public attention, if taken.
Nobody knows where the masterpiece is, although Christian Noop, a Belgian policeman, says he has the answer: he claims to have broken the code of the ransom letters and that the code points to the coffin of King Albert I. To this day, no one really knows the whereabouts of this painting.
6 Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence (1609) by Caravaggio
If you were a devoted catholic living in Palermo, Sicily, in 1969, you would probably go every Sunday to the Oratory of San Lorenzo and see, above the altar, a huge baroque painting -268 cm x 197 cm- depicting the birth of Jesus. A painting that would bring light to the faces and the angel singing the Gloria to the newborn. But if you had gone there on one particular Sunday of that year, October 19th, you would have been amazed to see a big void above the altar, and a frame on the floor, for the painting was stolen the previous day.
The painting is still missing and, may be, it will remain like that forever, as an ex-Mafia member informed that it had been burnt in the 1980’s. One wonders why they stole it, to burn it afterwards. Its estimated value is 20 million dollars.
5 View of Auvers-sur-Oise (between 1879 and 1882) by Paul Cezanne
An unfinished landscape, or so the author perceived it was, as he never signed nor dated it, where beautiful greens meet the white clouds in the horizon, giving the sense of expansion in the postimpressionist approach of the little town where Cézanne lived for a short time. And a thief decided that it was a great New Year’s Eve celebration to create a smokescreen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, U.K., and steal the painting while people celebrated the Millenium looking at the fireworks up in the sky. What an awful hang over it must have been for the people of the museum! Sadly, the painting, valued at £3 million, is still missing.
4 Christ in the storm on the sea of Galilee (1633) by Rembrandt van Rijn
The only seascape by Rembrandt gets our attention by the light of the crashing waves and darkness of the deep sea and the clouds: the typical baroque chiaroscuro. A boat is menaced by a furious storm, and the whole crew looks in angst and despair. All but one: Christ, at the right of the painting, who stays calm. Another man -Rembrandt, a self-portrait in the midst of a possible wreck- looks at us as if he was making sure that we aknowledge what is happening. This threatening image, a metaphor from the biblic passage from the Gospel of Mark, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in 1990, by two men disguised as policemen, who were able to get thirteen masterpieces out of this museum. A reward of 5 million dollars has been offered for information of any of these pieces.
3 The concert (c. 1663-1666) by Johannes Vermeer
A baroque composition that changes the way we perceive things, for the main scene is in the background, filled with light: A musical trio formed by a woman playing a harpsichord, a man playing a lute and a female singer. One will ever wonder which music they were playing. The foreground is less important to the eye, as it is immerse in shade, but reveals a viola da gamba on the floor, waiting to be played. Behind the players, two paintings –that exist in real life- ornate the scene. This piece of art was part of the theft of the Stella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in 1990, and it is supposed to be the most valuable unrecovered painting.
2 Le pigeon aux petits pois (1911) by Pablo Picasso
Disassembled pigeons, peas, a café sign and tables and chairs appear in this ochre and brown puzzlelike cubist painting. There is a warmth feeling in this image, like being inside a parisian café, looking at pigeons flying around to get some food… peas, perhaps, and smelling the aroma of freshly made espressos. But the pigeons, the aroma, the warmth flew away with the theft of this painting, in 2011. It was taken out of its frame and stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris by a single man, due to lax security, along with other four pieces of art. A year later, a man was convicted for the crime. He said he panicked after the theft and threw the paintings in the garbage, that was compacted by a truck shortly after. Would a thief actually do that or would he try to sell the masterpieces in the black market? We will never know. The five paintings were valued at 5 million Euros (5,544,000 dollars).
1 View of the sea at Scheveningen (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh
A windy day in a beach resort near The Hague. Van Gogh goes outdoors and starts painting with yellows and ochres. He was able to capture, in his impressionist style, how the wind affected the waves, the clouds and the grass. People in the painting look at the horizon and to a boat near the beach. Wind is something we can just imagine on the skin, unless we see an oil painting like this and notice little grains of sand stuck in the paint.
This piece of art was stolen in 2002 from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, along with Congregation leaving the reformed church in Nuene also by Van Gogh. None of these paintings was insured. Apparently, two thieves entered from the roof and used a ladder to get past security. In 2004 two men were convicted but the two paintings are still missing. The Museum is still offering a €100,000 reward for information.
Although this list of paintings and events invite the imagination to make movies or write books about the thefts or the images themselves, and we can conceive the artistic pleasure that the masterpieces could give -as it was visuaized at the beginning of this article-, the truth is that, nowadays, most art pieces are not stolen for aesthetic delight, but for ransom –the least of them- or for financing much lower activities like drug dealing, trafficking and so on, after selling them in the black market on 3 to 10% of its value. Furthermore, art heists are not uncommon. It is said that between 50,000 and 100,000 pieces of art are stolen every year, and that art theft is the biggest criminal business in the world after guns and drugs.
Hopefully, one day art could be protected in a better way, so that the masterpieces can delight everyone that goes to a museum to get transported through time, through perspectives, colours and shapes, and not perceived just as money for criminal transactions.