The art of stealing has been in existence throughout history with stories of Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and the other extreme of criminal robberies that have stolen for their own gain. Similarly, art theft is a common crime with only a small percentage of stolen art ever recovered. The first art theft recorded dates back to 1473 with Hans Memling’s painting The Last Judgement, which was stolen by Polish pirates while he was traveling. The pirates took their stolen loot to Gdansk where it remains in a museum to this day.
A few centuries later, the famous Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. After a few years of investigation, the iconic painting was recovered, and it was found that the thief was a worker in the museum where the art was displayed. During the Second World War as the Nazis overran Europe, they looted many magnificent works of art and added them to their private collections. Although several art pieces were recovered at the of the war, some such as the magnificent Amber Room from St. Petersburg has never been seen since.
Nearer to the present day in 1990, the Isabella Gardner Museum was hit with the largest art crime in America’s history with a loss of $500 million, as the thieves stole 13 works of art including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Another well-documented theft in this century happened in 2000 when The Scream and Madonna worth $19 million were stolen from the Munch Museum. This crime went down as one of the most sensational thefts as the thiefs set off explosives as a distraction while escaping via speedboat. Thankfully, all of the missing pieces had been recovered by 2005.