This spring, a 72-year-old woman stole a jacket filled with postcards that visitors could examine, while it was part of an exhibition by Oriol Vilanova, a Catalan artist, at the Musée Picasso in Paris. Vilanova had purchased the postcards depicting Picasso’s works at flea markets and museum shops.

The woman reportedly had a tailor alter the jacket to fit her and returned to the museum a few days later to see the show. Having been captured by a surveillance camera putting the jacket in her bag, she was arrested by police.

The woman was said to be “passionate” about art. After questioning by the public prosecutor’s office, she was released with a warning and her case dropped, according to the French daily Le Parisien.

A Breed Apart

Art theft is as old as art itself, and art thieves are a wildly assorted breed, from urbane, debonair professionals to connoisseurs of the Renaissance and Impressionism, including people who never read an art book and just plain eccentrics.

“Art thefts are continuing to rise because of the rise of art prices,” Robert Wittman, the former head of the F.B.I.’s Art-Crime Team and now an art-crime consultant in Philadelphia, told me.

“Art thievery is the fifth-largest criminal activity in the world, behind money-laundering, drugs, guns, and human trafficking such as forced labor and sexual exploitation,” he said. “Only five percent of stolen property is recovered. The vast majority of art thefts around the world are not well-known burglaries in homes, of art that is worth around $5,000 or $10,000.”

Former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez in the museum’s gallery of classical and Hellenistic art.

Last month, Jean-Luc Martinez, who had been director of the Louvre from 2013 to 2021, was charged with complicity in fraud and money-laundering in connection with artifacts that were allegedly smuggled out of Egypt and purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

A few weeks earlier, a couple attempted to steal a $45,000 print by Jean-Michel Basquiat off a shelf at a Manhattan art gallery. Video footage showed the couple removing the print as well as a bottle of whiskey. When the couple was leaving, a gallery employee stopped them and pulled the Basquiat from them. The police were still looking for the couple as this story went to press.

The woman was said to be “passionate” about art. After questioning by the public prosecutor’s office, she was released with a warning.

Two thieves were arrested in Vienna on June 9 after they allegedly mistook art works worth $1 million for scrap metal and decided to have it melted in a furnace in the city.

The works—five bronze reliefs and two bronze sculptures weighing 2,200 pounds—are by the late Greek-Austrian artist Joannis Avramidis. The police were quoted by Newsweek as saying that the works were sold to a recycling company “for a few thousand euros.” All the pieces, which had been stolen from a studio in Vienna last May, were returned to their rightful owner.

Other thieves have found that if you can’t sell it, melt it. In 2005, after 20 large bronze sculptures were stolen from museums and private collections in England, a leading art detective told me that the thieves’ outlet “is a friendly corrupt scrap-metal dealer who melts down the bronzes.”

Radu Dogaru is another art thief, and probably the only one who considered suing a museum for, as he put it, allowing itself to be breached so easily.

Dogaru was one of six Romanian men accuses of stealing seven paintings—including works by Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin—from the Kunsthal museum, in Rotterdam, in 2012. They tried unsuccessfully to find buyers for the works in Belgium, Monaco, and Russia through a man known as “George the Thief.” Today, the paintings have not been found and may have been destroyed. (Dogaru’s mother confessed to burning all the paintings but later retracted her confession.)

Charged with stealing paintings by Picasso, Monet, and others, Eugen Darie and Radu Dogaru leave court after a hearing, 2013.

In 2013, Dogaru and his partners were caught, and each man was sentenced to a jail term of six years and eight months. At a court hearing, Dogaru said that it was so easy for him to get into the museum and walk out with the masterpieces because security had been “practically nonexistent” and that all he needed to get into it was a screwdriver. But no suit developed.

The overwhelming motive for art thefts is money—many unsophisticated thieves are under the happy delusion that they will have no trouble disposing of the loot. (That is, until they try.) Yet certain thieves have displayed a pure love of art for art’s sake—more Thomas Crown Affair than Ocean’s Twelve.

The earliest known case is believed to be the theft in 1473 of The Last Judgment, a painting attributed to Hans Memling. The painting was created in the Netherlands for an Italian banker and was seized on a ship bound for Florence by Polish pirates who eventually sent it to Poland. There have been lengthy lawsuits over the painting, which is now hanging in Poland’s National Museum, in Warsaw.

One of them was a sensitive soul who, many years ago, phoned a London art dealer and told him to go to a room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the dealer would find something. The dealer found a 13-inch Rodin bronze that had been stolen from the dealer four months earlier.

Under the bronze was an envelope with a letter from “An Impecunious Art Student,” 10 shillings (about $1.40 at the time), and lines from the W. B. Yeats poem “The Living Beauty.” The letter concluded: “There was no mercenary intent behind my abduction of this exquisite creature. I merely wished to live with her for a while. Auguste Rodin would have understood.” The 10 shillings were for another Rodin sculpture, for whose purchase the Tate Gallery was raising a public subscription.

The most famous art thief of all said he was motivated by patriotism (but that money had something to do with it—he wanted $100,000 for his booty’s return). On August 11, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian who had worked at the Louvre, stole the Mona Lisa from the museum because, he said later, his country’s honor had been disgraced by France’s possession of Leonardo’s masterpiece. Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for about two and a half years. He was arrested after he returned to Florence with the painting and tried to get a reward from an art dealer. He served seven months in prison.

Another anonymous art-lover stole a 16th-century Dutch painting from a Roman gallery to confirm, he said, his suspicions that it was not the original, and he left what experts said was a fairly good copy of the painting.

The painting was recovered a week later, after an anonymous caller told the police that it could be found wrapped in paper in a church nearby. With it was a note saying the painting was a fake, which was signed “Friend of Art.” The note added: “It was a bet. I am not a thief and we are not a gang.”

Milton Esterow was the editor and publisher of ARTnews from 1972 to 2014. He currently contributes to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair