The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that art thieves nab about $6 billion US worth of precious works annually, making this the fourth most profitable crime after money laundering, drugs and arms trafficking.
Some of the world's most famous artworks have been stolen at some point, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which was taken 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.
Well-known pieces are 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.
Major art thefts in recent times
Oct. 16, 2012: In one of the most significant Dutch art thefts in years, thieves escape with seven paintings by master artists — including Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet — on public display at Rotterdam's Kunsthal gallery.
May 20, 2010: Five paintings - worth up to $124 million - are snagged from the Musee d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris, including Picasso's Le pigeon aux petits-pois, Matisse's La Pastorale and Braque's L'olivier pres de l'Estaque.
Feb. 10, 2008: Four paintings by van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Degas are stolen by armed thieves from a private museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The van Gogh and Monet works are recovered. Cezanne's The Boy in the Red Vest and Degas's Viscount Lepic and His Daughters (together worth about $163 million) are still missing.
Feb. 26, 2007: Two Picasso paintings, worth nearly $66 million US, and a drawing are stolen from the Paris home of the artist's granddaughter. Police recover the art when the thieves try to sell it.
Dec. 20, 2007: Picasso's Portrait of Suzanne Bloch (worth up to $50 million) and Candido Porinari's The Coffee Worker (worth about $5.5 million) are taken from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. They are later found.
Feb. 24, 2006: Four works by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Dali, as well as other objects, are stolen from the Museu Chacara do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during a Carnival parade.
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 more than $320 million worth of missing art.
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.
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: Picasso's Nature Morte a la Charlotte, worth about $4 million, is reported missing from a restoration studio in Paris's Pompidou Centre.
Aug. 26, 2003: Two men posing as tourists overpower a student guide at Scotland's Drumlanrig Castle and steal da Vinci's Madonna with the Yarnwinder, worth between $50 million and $105 million. 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."
April 27, 2003: 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.
Dec. 7, 2002: 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.
Feb. 12, 1994: 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.
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.
April 1991: Sunflowers, Van Gogh's most celebrated work, is among the 20 paintings stolen from the 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.