How could someone steal a painting from a museum?

The Zurich Art Heist

Two of the four masterpieces stolen from the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich were recovered.
Two of the four masterpieces stolen from the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich were recovered.
Nicholas Ratzenboeck/AFP/Getty Images

Perugia's successful snag of the "Mona Lisa" in 1911 was certainly more subtle than recent heists. In 1990, thieves robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston of about $250 million in paintings, including three Rembrandts, five Degas sketches and a Manet [source: Crime Library]. They dressed in fake police uniforms and were let in by guards after hours.

At the Swedish National museum in 2000, men brandishing a machine gun got away with a Renoir and a Rembrandt. Before the robbery, the thieves laid spikes on the roads leading to the museum; and at the time of the robbery, accomplices set off bombs in two other parts of the city. The chaos resulted in a slow police-response time and a successful $30 million haul.

Two men stole "The Scream" from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in 2004 with nothing more than a handgun.

A 2008 robbery in Zurich proved that all you really need to steal priceless art is a gun. Three men raided the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich, Switzerland, with as little manpower and planning as the 2004 Oslo robbery. While the museum was open to the public on Feb. 10, the three thieves walked in and took four French Impressionist works of the wall. One man pulled out a gun and had everyone in the small museum lie down, while two others took the four paintings closest to the door. Authorities don't believe they were targeting any specific work, since all four paintings were on the same wall.

The thieves ran from the museum with Paul Cézanne's "Boy in the Red Waistcoat," Claude Monet's "Poppy Field at Vétheuil," Edgar Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and His Daughter" and Vincent van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches," all still in their protective glass cases. It may be sheer luck that they grabbed the Cézanne -- the most valuable painting in the museum's collection [source: New York Times].The four paintings together are worth approximately $163 million.

Surprisingly, two of the paintings, the Van Gogh and the Monet, were found just 10 days later by a security guard in the back seat of a car parked in a nearby lot. Police think the four works may have simply been too heavy to carry around in their protective glass, so the thieves abandoned two. The Cézanne and the Degas, like hundreds of other recognizable paintings, including Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," are still out there. According to the FBI, only about 5 percent of stolen masterpieces are ever recovered [source: CNN].

One has to wonder, if these works are so recognizable, how can thieves try to sell them without getting caught? How can this type of art theft be profitable? It turns out that one of the quickest ways to get money for the paintings is incredibly counter-intuitive.