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Armed robbers who raided the Munch Museum in Oslo, Aug. 22, 2004, run to load stolen paintings into the back of a waiting getaway car in this photo taken by a witness. (AP Photo/ SCANPIX)
Jessica Wong, CBC News Online | August 23, 2004

Art theft joins drugs, money laundering and illegal arms trading as one of the largest criminal activities in the world. And though thieves have often targeted famous paintings, an increasing trend of brazen thefts sees paintings stolen not just for profit but also as a type of trophy robbery to impress others. Stolen art can also be used as a bargaining chip between crime syndicates.

No legitimate collector would be interested in an internationally known work that has been highly publicized as stolen, nor could a gallery or museum display it.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (AP Photo)
Some of the world's most famous artworks have been stolen at some point, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which was stolen from the Louvre in August 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Paris museum. Though Pablo Picasso was among those questioned about the theft, Peruggia – who claimed he wished to repatriate the work to Italy – was discovered trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery about two years later.

Some recent art thefts:

Aug. 22, 2004:
Armed thieves barge into Oslo's lightly guarded Munch Museum in broad daylight and, before a group of startled patrons, rip the Edvard Munch masterpiece The Scream and his Madonna from the wall.

CBC STORY: Nationwide hunt for brazen Norwegian art thieves

July 31, 2004:
Ten paintings from a collection housed in a historic hospital in Rome are stolen from an unguarded restoration room. The missing works include The Sacra Famiglia by 16th century artist Parmigianino, Flagellazione by Cavalier D'Arpino (a mentor of Caravaggio), and Testa di Vecchio by High Baroque master Lanfranco.

May 19, 2004:
Pablo Picasso's Nature Morte � la Charlotte, worth about $4 million, is reported missing from a restoration studio in Paris' Pompidou Centre.

CBC STORY: Picasso missing in Paris

Aug. 26, 2003:
Two men posing as tourists overpower a student guide at Scotland's Drumlanrig Castle and steal Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna with the Yarnwinder, worth between $50 million and $105 million US. As they escaped out a window and down an outer wall, they reportedly told two New Zealand tourists: "Don't worry love, we're the police. This is just practice."

CBC STORY: Caught on tape

April 27, 2003:
Vincent Van Gogh's The Fortifications of Paris with Houses, Poverty painted by Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape are stolen from Manchester's Whitworth Gallery. The paintings are later found, rolled up in a cardboard tube, in a nearby public washroom with a note saying the thieves only wanted to highlight the gallery's poor security.

CBC STORY: Stolen paintings back on display in 2 weeks

Dec. 7, 2002:

Dutch police forensic experts examine a smashed window on the roof of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.(AP Photo)
Thieves break into Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum several hours before its opening and, in just a few minutes, steal two early oils by the Dutch painter, View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. They leave only the ladder and rope they had used to climb up the museum walls and to make their escape.

CBC STORY: Thieves nab Van Goghs worth millions

July 20, 2002:
After apparently digging for two months, thieves burrow into Paraguay's National Fine Arts Museum, via their 25-metre tunnel, and steal a dozen paintings.

Nov. 19, 2001:
Stephane Breitwieser, who's been called the world's most consistently successful art thief, began stealing artifacts and Old Masters paintings from the 16th to the 18th century in 1995. He built up an extraordinary art collection worth more than $1 billion at his mother's flat. Almost all is destroyed when upon hearing of his arrest in November 2001, Breitwieser's mother cuts the paintings to pieces before disposing of them and dumps other items from his seven-year haul – taken from 172 museums in five European countries – into the Rhine-Rhone canal. Authorities don't learn of Mireille Breitwieser's actions until May 2002.

CBC STORY: French waiter sentenced for million-dollar art theft

Aug. 8, 2001:
Thieves break into a private residence in Spain and remove more than 20 paintings and sculptures by the likes of Francisco Goya, Peter Brueghel, Camile Pissaro and Japanese artist Foujita. The following June, a joint operation between the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Spanish National Police results in three arrests and the recovery of 10 paintings. In September 2002, police recover the remaining paintings and sculptures in an apartment in northern Spain.

July 17, 2001:
An Andy Warhol portrait of Lenin disappears from a Cologne, Germany, warehouse, just days after it had been sold to a Munich gallery owner. It is recovered in 2002 with the help of Art Loss Register's Cologne office.

Dec. 22, 2000:
Three armed and masked men grab two Renoirs and a Rembrandt from Sweden's National Museum in Stockholm, escaping by speedboat. Though Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Conversation is later found during a drug raid, Young Parisian and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's self-portrait remain missing.

Nov. 26, 1999:
Two Norman Rockwell paintings, estimated to be worth $400,000, are stolen from a downtown Toronto office. Though there were more valuable items nearby, thieves chose the two, Boy Holding Screaming Baby Boy and Waiting For The Art Editor, closest to the exit.

Edvard Munch's original version of The Scream was taken from Norway's National Gallery in 1994. Another of the four versions is later stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo on Aug. 22, 2004. (AP Photo/ Scanpix, Munch Museum, Sidsel de Jong)

Feb. 12, 1994:
Edvard Munch's The Scream is taken from the National Gallery in Oslo. The stolen painting is the original out of the four versions Munch produced (two more are in the collection of the Munch Museum while the fourth belongs to a private collector). It is recovered three months later.

April 1991:
Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh's most celebrated work, is among the 20 paintings stolen from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. The haul is found hours later in an abandoned car.

March 18, 1990:
In one of the biggest art thefts in history, two men disguised as police officers hoodwink and then handcuff the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, before making off with three Rembrandts, a Johannes Vermeer, an Edouard Manet and five Degas works. At the time, the haul is estimated to be worth about $392 million; it has never been found.

CBC Radio's Laura Lynch reports on the growing threat of art theft (Aug. 23, 2004 - runs 2:00)

CBC-TV's David Sillito reports (Aug. 22, 2004 - runs 1:27)

Art Loss Register operates the world's largest private international database of more than 100,000 "uniquely identifiable stolen and missing items." Since its debut in 1991, it has reportedly recovered up to $355 million worth of missing art.

Interpol polls its member countries for annual art theft statistics. Though many don't like to admit the loss of valuable art and replies are sometimes incomplete, the agency reports that:

  • Art thieves favour France, Italy, Russia and Germany.

  • The majority of thefts are from private citizens but museums and houses of worship are also preferred targets.

  • Though it varies from country to country, in general thieves seek paintings, sculptures, statues and religious items.
In 1995, Interpol created a database of missing art that currently includes more than 26,000 items. The organization's general secretariat also produces a CD-ROM – updated every two months in English, Spanish, French and Arabic – of all the missing items and provides it to museums, antique dealers and collectors.

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Art Loss Register

Interpol: Stolen Works of Art

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation list

Object ID: an international standard for describing art, antiques and antiquities

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