How could someone steal a painting from a museum?

Why bother stealing art?

In a scene from the 1937 movie "Good Morning Boys," Mark Daly and Lilli Palmer swap the real Mona Lisa for a copy. Art heists have grown more and more common.
In a scene from the 1937 movie "Good Morning Boys," Mark Daly and Lilli Palmer swap the real Mona Lisa for a copy. Art heists have grown more and more common.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With art prices skyrocketing, museum thefts are on the rise. It might even be more profitable to steal a Picasso -- or, in the case of the Zurich heist in February 2008, a Cézanne -- than a bag of diamonds. Some recent thefts have proven how easy it can be to take a painting. But how can thieves sell "Boy in the Red Waistcoat" if the whole world knows it was stolen?

There are really only a couple of ways to do it:

Thieves can sell the painting to an unscrupulous art dealer or collector. While it's not the most common way to get rid of a well-known work, there are always people out there who will buy a stolen masterpiece. The thieves have to know exactly whom to ask, though. And they'll be selling the work for less than 10 percent of market value [source: CNN]. That's still a lot, though, with the price of art these days.

If the painting is very recognizable, it'll probably never end up on the open market, selling for what it's worth. But if the world has given up looking for a lesser-known work, a sort of art-laundering can take place. The first dealer might sell it quietly for a low price, getting a quick sale to avoid attention. If the painting then changes hands a few times in non-public deals, it can eventually end up at public auction with no red flags going up, since the owner listing it is, in fact, the legitimate owner. If the auction house doesn't check up on the painting, it can slip through the cracks.

Director Steven Spielberg discovered he had a stolen Norman Rockwell painting in his collection in 2007 and immediately alerted the authorities [source: MSNBC]. The work had been stolen from a museum in Missouri in 1973. He'd paid $200,000 for the $700,000 work of art in what he believed was a legitimate sale [source: CNN]. The FBI believes the painting had been sold "legitimately" at least twice before Spielberg bought it.

Thieves can also sell the painting as a fake. The easiest and most common way to make money from stolen masterpieces is to sell the real thing as a very high-quality replica. This way, thieves can sell the work on the open market. They get far less than what it's worth, but when the original is worth 10 or 20 million dollars, they can still walk away with a nice profit. The FBI believes that many of the stolen masterpieces that are still missing are sitting in the collections of legitimate buyers who think the work is a fake.

If the thief doesn't want to risk a sale, he or she can always hold it for ransom or return it for the reward money. For a priceless work of art, museums and their insurance companies are willing to pay a lot for recovery, even if the robbers go free. The Boston museum robbed in a $250 million heist offered $5 million for information leading to the paintings' whereabouts, but met with no success. For the 2008 Zurich heist, an unknown entity has offered a $90,000 reward for information on the two missing masterpieces [source: CNN].

There are more than 30,000 works of art listed on the international Art Loss Register, and the FBI estimates the market for stolen art to be in the area of $6 billion a year.

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More Great Links


  • ­2 Paintings Stolen From Zurich Museum Didn't Get Far. New York Times. February 20, 2008.
  • $163 Million Art Heist In Zurich. CBS February 11, 2008.
  • Armed robbers stole works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh valued at more than $163 million from a Zurich museum. Museum Security Network. February 12, 2008.
  • Reward beats risk for art thieves. February 14, 2008.
  • Sensational art heists from Mona Lisa to Munch's The Scream. Crime Library.
  • Zurich art museum robbed of a Cézanne, a Degas, a Van Gogh and a Monet. International Herald Tribune. February 11, 2008.