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Legendary Larceny

True Stories of the World's Most Epic Thievery

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 18, 2020

Heists Make for Good Stories

Generally, we can all agree that stealing is wrong. And yet, stories about successful thefts are pretty popular. (Ocean's Eleven, anyone?) On this day thirty years ago, two men posing as police officers entered Boston's Isabella Gardner Museum and absconded with thirteen works of art, valued at more than $500 million. The case—the largest art robbery in US history—remains unsolved, despite the promise of a $10 million reward. Read about that true crime mystery, along with several other accounts of the world's most notorious heists.

Making off with Museum Loot

None of the art taken from the Gardner Museum has been recovered, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas. The stolen Vermeer, titled The Concert, is believed to be the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world. The Gardner Heist may yet lack a satisfactory conclusion, but reporter Ulrich Boser tracks unfinished leads and delves deep into the art underworld, uncovering fascinating characters, startling new evidence, and a deeply compelling tale of greed, obsession, and loss.

In a similar story four years later, two men entered Oslo's National Gallery and left with one of the world's most famous paintings, Edvard Munch's The Scream. The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is the rollicking story of how art detective Charley Hill cracked the case and recovered the piece. It's worth noting that Hill has also been tracking the Gardner Museum case for the last 25 years and has recently said he is close to solving it.

In 1911, the unfathomable occurred when the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre. The iconic masterpiece by Italian master Leonardo da Vinci was missing for more than 24 hours before officials even realized it was gone. R. A. Scotti's riveting Vanished Smile tells the story of the mysterious theft and its aftermath. Although the beloved artwork was eventually recovered, the thief was never identified.

Fakes and Forgeries

Art fraud has wreaked incidiously surreptitious heists on the art world over the course of many years. The extensive infiltration of forgeries into renowned collections has created a web of lies that can take decades to untangle.

Provenance by Aly Sujo and Laney Salisbury tells the story of a decade-long art scam that sullied the integrity of many museums and experts. John Myatt, a struggling British painter and single father, didn't initially intend to pass off his impressive fakes as the real thing. But that changed when he met con man John Drewe, who promised huge payoffs from the scheme. Drewe falsified records, even planting false documents in the archives of London's Tate Gallery. Read the account of the infamous deception and its fallout.

In the late 1930s and early'40s a Dutch painter named Han van Meergeren began making pictures in the style of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, with the object of passing them off as originals. It was a wildly successful enterprise. The forgeries sold for gigantic sums—millions of dollars in today's values. One of van Meergeren's most dedicated customers was none other than Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goering. Edward Dolnick breaks down the story in The Forger's Spell.

Fringe Cases

Some of the stories of large-scale theft involve unusual forms of booty and surprising motives. In 2009, twenty-year-old Edwin Rist broke into a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History and stole hundreds of rare bird skins, many of which had been collected 150 years earlier by a naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin. It took over a year for detectives to trace the theft to Rist and by then, he'd made a fortune selling many of the skins and feathers to salmon fly-fishing devotees. Read this fascinating story in The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson, himself a fly fisherman.

Among the more endearing (and colorful) thieves in this category is Attila Ambrus, a professional hockey player from Transylvania. During the 1990s, while playing for a hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbing to make ends meet. Dubbed The Whiskey Robber because he was often seen drinking at a nearby pub before robberies, he became famous for sporting outlandish disguises, flirting with bank tellers, and sending the police bottles of wine. His entertaining story is told in The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein, which has been optioned by Johnny Depp for a possible film adaptation.

And in a story of thievery we can maybe relate to (just a little bit), The Man Who Loved Books Too Much tells of unrepentant book thief, John Gilkey. While most robbers steal for the profit, the obsessive Gilkey did it purely for the love of literature, making off with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare books from fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Author Allison Hoover Bartlett brings a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor to the narrative of Gilkey's outrageous crimes and Ken Sanders, the self-appointed "bibliodick" (a book dealer with a penchant for detective work) who ultimately tracked him down.

It's worth repeating: Robbers are bad and stealing is wrong. But darn it if they don't make for fascinating stories. We have had a great time reading about these noteworthy crimes and hope you will too!

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