My husband and I are cleaning out our condo — getting rid of boxes and boxes of junk. (We did not read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but still got the message: Only keep things that spark joy).
As we’ve carted stuff off to Goodwill, I’ve worried: what if I miss these things? Am I throwing out a memory? Will I forget something once it’s gone? It brought me so much joy in the PAST, am I really ready to get rid of it?
This process made me think about other things I’ve lost. Things given away, misplaced, or stolen…
But the truth is, those missing things still have power. I still remember them. They still happened. I still OWN them, even if the physical item is gone. It doesn’t matter that I can’t put my hands on the THING. The THING still exists somewhere (even things lost in fires or to death still exist in my memory, my heart, and in the history of the world)…
Just because something is missing, doesn’t mean it’s gone.
This made me think of all of the art masterpieces that are missing — lost to time, war, or thieves. Many have been recovered (including Munch’s Scream, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and the “takeaway Rembrandt” portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III which has been stolen and recovered four different times), but specialists estimate over 150,000 stolen works may never be recovered.
But just because they are MISSING does not mean they are GONE. They still resonate with us. They still have power. They still exist.
So the next time you lose something — a treasured item, a mate, a home — let THIS list of Stolen Art remind you: it is not gone. It still lives with YOU.
1: The Concert by Johannes Vermeer
Any reference to stolen art MUST begin with the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston where thieves dressed as policemen made off with 13 masterpieces estimated at over $300 million including The Concert, one of only 36 known Vermeers in existence. The painting has been gone for 25 years, but that does not diminish its power — I still feel like I am in that room, listening to that 17th century music… Also lost in the Gardner heist were 5 Degas paintings, 3 Rembrandts, and a Manet…
2. Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair by Pierre Auguste Renoir
In 2011, an armed robber entered a private home in Houston and demanded money and diamonds. Worried about the intruder finding her young son sleeping upstairs, the lady of the house pointed to the Renoir. “That’s the most valuable thing I own,” she said, and the robber took the painting — frame and all — and fled, leaving the family unharmed. I love this Renoir (worth over $1 million), the lady pictured, and the woman who sacrificed a bit of art to protect her family.
3: Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois by Pablo Picasso
In 2010, a single thief stole five works — valued at over 100 million — from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris including works by Modigliani, Matisse, Leger, Braque, and this masterpiece by Picasso. The thief later claimed he threw the five paintings into a trash bin and they were destroyed by a compactor. The painting may very well have been destroyed, but Picasso’s effect on art and history will never be forgotten.
4. Waterloo Bridge by Claude Monet
In 2012, a team of robbers stole 7 paintings from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum including a Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, and two Monets — one this impression of Waterloo Bridge. One suspect’s mother claims she burned the stolen works in an attempt to protect her son (although she later recanted the claim). The paintings may be on the black market or they may be ash, but you can still be moved by that blue haze over the Thames.
5. Auvers sur Oise by Paul Cezanne
This painting was stolen during a high-tech burglary worthy of a film plot. Lifted from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England on December 31, 1999, the thieves used the cover of the millennium fireworks celebration to nab this Cezanne masterpiece. Renoirs, Rodins, and Toulouse-Lautrecs hung in the same gallery, but the thieves left those behind; they seemed to be specifically targeting this Cezanne. The heist took only 10 minutes, but the piece has been gone for 15 years with no signs of resurfacing.
6. Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio
On a stormy night in October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo and cut this Caravaggio masterpiece from its frame where it had been hanging for over 300 years. The painting has not been seen since. Caravaggio died young — at only 39 years old — so we only have about 70 of his paintings; the loss of this $20 million masterpiece was a blow to Western Art. The world lost the artist and this painting too soon, but Michelangelo Caravaggio’s impact on art and culture is indelible.
7. Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen by Vincent Van Gogh
In 2002, thieves entered the famed Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam through the roof; within a few minutes, they had escaped with two Van Gogh masterpieces. The robbers were arrested and convicted in 2004, but the paintings were not recovered. The second stolen painting was View of the Sea at Scheveningen (below). These may not be the most famous Van Goghs, but Vincent’s heart and soul still beat in both.
8. Two Balconies by Salvador Dali
In February 2006, four armed thieves used the raucous Brazilian party of Carnivale to cloak their heist of the Museu Chacara do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro. As millions celebrated in the streets, the robbers made off with this Dali — the only one by the artist on display in Latin America. The gunmen also lifted a Matisse, Picasso, and Monet, robbing Brazil of some of their most valuable masterpieces, but never of the Brazilian spirit.
9. The Just Judges panel from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
Arguably one of the most important works in Western Art (it is history’s first major oil painting), the Ghent altarpiece has been through a lot: it was nearly destroyed in a fire, stolen by Napoleon, and hunted by the Nazis (famously rescued by the Monuments Men). It is arguably the most stolen painting of all time. Then, in 1934 one of its 12 panels — the Just Judges — was stolen and has never been returned, although there is always hope of a reunion of the entire altarpiece. Sometimes it is comforting to dream of the return of things lost.
10. Storm of the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn
We end back where we began: with the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. The Storm of the Sea of Galilee is Rembrandt’s only known seascape — and this painting makes me wish he had painted more. With the boat on the verge of capsizing, it reminds me of the fragility of all life — we are always on the verge of losing it all, so might as well appreciate art — and life — while we still have it.
There are rewards offered for the safe return of all of these paintings. For more information — or if you have a tip to help with recovery — you can always check with the FBI’s Art Crime Team.