Lowlife Perpetrates Art: 5 Greatest Art Heists and Scams of All Time
Everybody likes art in some form or another. In fact, some like it so much, they’ll do anything they can to get their grubby hands on it. Here are six instances where the best of human artistry brought out the worst of human trickery.
When Greeks Lose Their Marbles
Since 1832, some of the greatest treasures of ancient Greek civilization have been residing in the British Museum. And the Greeks, who understandably consider themselves the rightful owners of things Greek, want their stuff back. The objects in question are the Elgin Marbles, so called because they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, and British ambassador to Constantinople. Elgin claimed to have removed the friezes and sculptures because the Ottomans (who ruled Greece at the time) were neglecting them. Of course, critics are more than happy to tell you the good earl outright stole them. Whatever Elgin’s motives, the workers who removed the sculptures did terrible, irreparable damage to the Parthenon. The marbles arrived in England between 1801 and 1805 to a mixture of awe and outrage. A profligate spender (earls just wanna have fun!), Elgin piled up huge debts and ended up selling the collection to Parliament in 1816. Since then, a cold war of sorts has simmered between the governments of England and Greece over the return of the sculptures. In fact, proponents of returning the marbles to Greece have removed Elgin’s name and refer to them simply as the Parthenon Marbles.
Just Judges Just Disappeared
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a 24-panel masterpiece by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, is considered one of the most important Christian paintings in history. One panel, however, known as the Just Judges, has been missing since it was stolen from a cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent in 1934. Shortly after the theft, the archbishop received 13 ransom notes signed “D.U.A.” demanding 1 million Belgian francs for the painting’s safe return. “D.U.A.” turned out to be a transposition of the initials of Arseen Van Damme (with the “V” unlatinized into a “U”), alias of Arsne Goedertier, an eccentric who allegedly got the idea from a detective novel. Since then, numerous theories about the theft and the whereabouts of the painting have circulated: It was stolen by the Knights Templar; or the painting contains a map to the Holy Grail; or it’s buried in the coffin of Belgium’s King Albert I; or Goedertier was working for a Nazi spy, who was ordered by Hitler to obtain it as the centerpiece of his new ‘Aryan religion.’ The theories and clue have tantalized sleuths for three-quarters of a century, but the painting’s location still remains a mystery.
Pahk the Cah, Then Steal Some Aht
On March 18, 1990, in what still ranks as the biggest art theft in U.S. history, two thieves made off with masterpieces worth, get this, over $300 million. The robbery occurred at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, where two men dressed as Boston cops pretended to respond to a disturbance. They cuffed the security guards, then helped themselves to 13 paintings, including works by Vermeer, Manet and Rembrandt. While none of the paintings has yet been recovered, a theory has developed as to their whereabouts: the heist may have been masterminded by the Irish Republican Army, working in conjunction with Irish gangsters in Boston to ransom the paintings, then use the money to run guns to the IRA. Proponents of this theory say the paintings are hidden somewhere in Ireland, but IRA spokesmen vehemently deny this. Nevertheless, the FBI is said to be following this lead. Stay tuned.