It might be argued that the theft of great art is the worst theft imaginable because it takes from the world a thing of great beauty. (I think stealing from the poor is worse, but let that go for the sake of this review.) A series called “Art of the Heist” and subtitled “Inside the art world’s biggest thefts” is now available in a set of 4 DVDs from Athena Learning and makes a strong case for that opening thesis.
There are 14 cases of art thefts included in this miniseries, starting with the heist of several works of art from a Stockholm museum and ending with a single man taking and holding for ransom the famous Cellini Salt Cellar by simply climbing up a scaffolding to the 7th floor of a Viennese museum under renovation and down again with the object.
In most cases, art thefts from museums have been facilitated by shamefully inadequate security measures, as in the case of the Gardner Museum in Boston and even the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in which the curator of all the art not on public display simply took about 200 items home in her bag.
Of course, we have the defilers of tombs in Egypt (as in many a Mummy film) and of churches that housed mosaics and icons of great artistic value. The case of the Nazis’ taking a Klimt portrait of a lady was recently made into a film and is told more briefly here. Ironically, the original title was changed by the thieves to “The Lady in Gold” because the Lady in question was Jewish. Probably the most famous case is the taking of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.
Some of the cases seem clones of others, some are quite unique. The almost comical actions of the Cellini thief could have made a good episode of “Lovejoy.” Among the other artists mentioned are Rubens, Cezanne, and Munch.
The most shameful is the looting of a museum in Buenos Aires, almost certainly by the Junta that was keeping the country under a reign of terror and needed a source of money to pay for armaments.
The stories are told by interviews with both crooks and cops and reenactments of the crimes and the investigations that followed. Most of it is quite riveting, some merely interesting. But it certainly is worth seeing.