Hidden masterpieces: How some of the most valuable paintings were lost and found

It’s no secret that some of the world’s most famous works of art are extremely valuable. With paintings selling at auction for tens of millions of pounds, and some work even being truly priceless, it’s little wonder that some of the most ambitious criminals have sought to pit themselves against the stern security measures that seek to keep such valuable works under lock and key. But how well do we know the stories of the world’s most famous stolen artwork? Here, we take a look at just a few of the most famous tales of daring thefts and recoveries.
Mona Lisa
If you’ve ever seen Hollywood’s elaborate representations of art theft, you’ll know that one of the most effective ways to get your hands on something valuable is to disguise yourself as a trustworthy member of staff wherever the said item is being held. It was this very tactic that saw Da Vinci’s masterpiece vanish at the start of the 20th century from its permanent home at the Louvre gallery.
The painting was stolen by an Italian man who had apparently spent some time working as a handyman at the gallery before the theft in 1911. It was recovered just two years later, and has now been at the Louvre ever since.
Self-portrait with Beret and Gathered Shirt
One of Rembrandt’s finest pieces was a beautiful painting of himself on copper. However, it became the target of a rather less sneaky and more violent theft when it was stolen, along with a Renoir painting, in 2000 as part of an armed robbery.
The two paintings would disappear for some time after the daring raid that saw them stolen, and the Rembrandt work would not be discovered until five years after they went missing, when they were found in Copenhagen. This was a full year before the other two paintings, which had travelled considerably further, were recovered, making this one of the longer lasting modern robbery cases in the art world.
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
Painted by Thomas Gainsborough, the portrait of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire is one that has acquired quite a story to tell over the years, with many tales of it going missing, being found and sold time and again. But none of its stories are as fascinating as the theft of the 1785 painting in May 1876.
It vanished in the night from Agnew & Sons gallery in London, and was missing for many years, during which the London newspapers had a field day, reporting on many sightings of the piece, none of which were ever confirmed. However, the painting did re-emerge in 1901, 25 years later, when criminal mastermind Adam Worth, who inspired Conan Doyle’s famous Moriarty, negotiated its return from Chicago. It turned out he had stolen the painting to pay for his brother’s bail, but didn’t need it, so simply kept it and took it home to the US.
Portrait of Suzanne Bloch
Perhaps not one of the most famous of Picasso’s paintings, this piece was taken from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in 2007, whereafter it was missing for two months, before being recovered. In what is one of the more slick heists, the painting was stolen at around 5am by a group of three men, who took the Picasso and two other works, in a crime spree that lasted little more than three minutes in total.
There were extensive enquiries carried out in a bid to recover the paintings, with the Picasso by far the most valuable of the three, and Sao Paulo police recovered them and returned them to the museum at the start of 2008.
The Boy in the Red Vest
The most valuable of a number of paintings stolen from the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zürich, Switzerland in February 2008, the Boy in the Red Vest by Paul Cezanne was thought to be worth somewhere in the region of $91 million when it, along with a Degas painting, was taken by thieves.
However, the painting, which was by far the most valuable the gallery owned, was returned to its rightful home just four years later, when it was discovered being hidden in Serbia, along with Degas’ Count Lepic and His Daughters.