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Sunday afternoon, three men in ski masks entered the E.G. Buehrle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland, a half-hour before closing time. One brandished a pistol and ordered museum employees to the floor. The other two snatched paintings off the wall. They bolted to a getaway vehicle parked outside the museum.
The thieves' haul included masterpieces by van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Degas. Estimated value: More than $163 million.
Stunning? Sure. But it's just the latest in a long line of similar robberies. Art heists are probably as old as art itself. The modern era dates to the 1911 theft of the "Mona Lisa," when the self-styled Marques Eduardo de Valfierno paid three men to steal it from the Louvre in Paris. It's usually seen as the first great art heist of the 20th century. Since that time, countless works of major and minor art have been stolen.
In another famous case, Charles Wrightsman, the oil-rich American collector, bought Goya's "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington" for $392,000 in 1961 and planned to take it stateside. Such was the public outrage that the government raised the necessary matching sum. Less than three weeks after its triumphal hanging in the National Gallery, it was stolen. The thief demanded a ransom of the same amount and said he was going to devote it to charity. There was no response--unless you count the double take when James Bond (Sean Connery) spotted the painting on Dr. No's wall in the movie of the same name.
Another blockbuster crime was the theft of nine paintings--including Renoir's "Bathers" and Monet's "Impression, Soleil Levant," which gave Impressionism its name--from the Marmottan Museum in Paris in November 1985. The police at first theorized that the radical group Action Direct had committed the crime. But several paintings stolen from a provincial French museum in early 1984 were recovered in Japan after a tip-off from a fence. The paintings--including Corots--were in the hands of Shuinichi Fujikuma, a known gangster. He had been behind the Marmottan heist too. Indeed, he had circulated a catalog of the nine soon to be stolen paintings.
Japan's short statute of limitations on stolen art was notorious, and rumors became rampant that the Japanese mob, aka the Yakuza, had penetrated the art world. The truth was on a smaller scale. Fujikuma had been arrested in France with 7.8 kilos of heroin in 1978. During a five-year sentence, he came to know Philippe Jamin and Youssef Khimoun, members of an art theft syndicate. They pulled the job for him. But the paintings were recovered in 1991--in Corsica. They had been too hot, even for Japan.
But the single largest theft of precious objects is still the December 1985 robbery of Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology. It was Christmas Eve, and the eight guards on duty were not vigilant. Nor was it helpful that the alarm hadn't been working since the system broke down three years before. It was the new team of guards who arrived at 8 a.m. and discovered that sheets of glass had been removed from seven showcases.
The 140 objects taken included jade and gold pieces from the Maya, Aztec, Zapotec and Miztec sculptures (pictured is "Pacal's Burial Mask"). The curator, Felipe Solis, estimated that one piece alone--a vase shaped like a monkey--could be worth more than $20 million on the market--if a buyer could be found. Most of the pieces were an inch or so in height. The entire haul would have fit comfortably into a couple of suitcases.
America's greatest art mystery also remains unsolved. At 1:24 a.m. on the morning after St. Patrick's Day, 1990, two men in police uniforms knocked on a side door of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, mentioning a "disturbance" on the grounds. The guards let them in and were swiftly handcuffed and locked in a cellar. The work the thieves made off with included "The Concert" by Vermeer, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (Rembrandt's only marine painting), "Chez Tortoni" by Manet, five pieces by Degas and some miscellanea that includes a Chinese bronze beaker and a fitment from a Napoleonic flagstaff. Untouched were the Renaissance paintings, including Titian's "Europa," which is arguably the most valuable piece in the collection.
The current dollar figure attached to the stolen work exceeds $300 million. In 1997, with the investigation moribund, the museum raised the reward from $1 million to $5 million. Tipsters understandably emerged, among them a Boston antiques dealer, William P. Youngworth III. He was a shady character but gained attention by telling Tom Mashberg, a reporter for The Boston Herald, that he and Myles Connor could get the art returned. His price: immunity for himself, the release of Connor from jail and, naturally, the reward.
Connor was behind bars at the time of the Gardner heist--for another art heist--but claimed he could locate the art if released. Credibility soon began to leak. Then Mashberg got a telephone call that led to a nocturnal drive to a warehouse, where he was shown--by torchlight--what may or may not have been Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee." He was later given some paint chips, supposedly from that painting.
Doubts sprang up, as the chips were not from the Rembrandt. The U.S. attorney demanded that one of the paintings be returned as proof that the works were on hand. This didn't happen. Negotiations petered out. Connor is now out of jail, but the art is still missing.
--The Associated Press contributed to this article.