The Decade, Lost and Found: the 2010s in stolen and recovered art

The Decade, Lost and Found: the 2010s in stolen and recovered art
The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by UA Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton (r), Exhibitions Specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, Registrar. Courtesy University of Arizona Museum of Art.

The 2010s brought a number of highs and lows in the ever-changing realm of art theft and recovery. Before the 2010s come to a close, Art Critique looks back at some of the major cases of burglary and recovery that defined the decade.

  • Five paintings were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art including works by Picasso, Modigliani, and Matisse. Together the works were valued at anything from £86 million to £430 million. (2011)
  • Two women are arrested after trying to sale Odalisque in Red Pants, a stolen artwork by Henri Matisse. In 2002, the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas realized the painting had been stolen and replaced with a crude replica. The women are arrested after an FBI sting operation in Miami catches them discussing selling the work for $3 million. It was unknown when the painting officially went missing but it was missing for more than a decade. (2012)
Henri Matisse, ‘Odalisque in Red Pants.’ Courtesy Flickr Commons.
  • Thought to be a copy, an original painting by Van Dyck of Olivia Boteler Porter is found in the Bowes Museum collection. (2013)
  • Approximately 1,500 modernist works are recovered in the Munich flat of an 80-year-old man. That man happened to be Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, the notorious German art dealer and collector who was strongly associated with the Nazi regime. The artworks were either coined ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis and confiscated or taken from Jewish individuals during the 1930s and 1940s. When the elder Gurlitt passed away, his trove of works was passed down to his son, Cornelius, in secrecy. Included in the found works were items by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, and Marc Chagall. Together, the trove is valued at €1 billion. This discovery was the beginning of a long ordeal that would result in more art recoveries and Gurlitt battling to keep the works. (2013)

  • A portion of an outdoor installation by artist Danh Vo is stolen as his statues are being set up outside of City Hall Park in New York City. On loan from Paris’ Galerie Chantal Crousel, a chunk of a 40-pound copper sculpture of chain-link, valued at $6,000 at the time, was taken. The affected work was a part of We the People (2011-2013) by Vo, which consists of 250 large-scale replicas of portions of the Statue of Liberty. (2014)
  • Remember Odalisque in Red Pants? In 2014, the work by Matisse is returned to Venezuela by the US government after a Miami sting operation recovered the missing work. (2014)
  • Missing since World War II and thought to be gone forever, an art collector happens upon Albrecht Dürer’s 1520s engraving, Maria Crowned by an Angel, at a French flea market. After buying the engraving, which was nearly 500 years old, for just a few euros, the collector donated the work to a Stuttgart museum. (2016)
Albrecht Dürer, ‘Maria Crowned by an Angel,’ c. 1520s. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • ‘They are the real paintings!’ The Van Gogh Museum announces that two paintings by the artist, missing for 14 years, have been found. Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/1885) were taken from the museum in 2002. Their whereabouts were unknown until a massive initiative, commissioned by the Italian Public Prosecution department and conducted by the Guardia di Finanza team, found the artworks. Though missing their frames, the two works were fairly undamaged during. (2016)
Vincent van Gogh, ‘Vincent van Gogh, View of the Sea at Scheveningen,’ 1882. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
‘Woman-Ochre’ seen hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter’s bedroom door. Photo by Rick Johnson. Courtesy of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques.
  • Baggage check? French customs officers find The Chorus Singers, a small painting by Edgar Degas valued at about $1 million, when randomly searching a bus luggage compartment just outside of Paris. The painting had been missing for eight years after someone unscrewed the work from a wall of a Marseille museum. (2018)
  • While helping his mother move, an Upstate New York man notices a painting that was had Robert Motherwell’s name on the back. It turned out, the painting was a missing Motherwell that eluded authorities for 40 years. The man contacted the Dedalus Foundation, set up by Motherwell in 1981, and the FBI launched an investigation. It turned out the man’s father had worked at the warehouse where a number of Motherwell’s paintings were being stored when the painting, Untitled (1967) went missing. The man’s father passed away in the 1990s and the FBI didn’t suspect that his son or wife knew anything of the matter. (2018)
Robert Motherwell, ‘Untitled,’ 1967. Photo: Eileen Kinsella via
  • America, the 18-karat gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan, is stolen from Blenheim Palace in England. Valued at £4.8 million, the toilet was installed in a bathroom once used by Winston Churchill for guests to see and even use. In the early hours of the morning before the solo exhibition, titled ‘Victory is Not an Option,’ the toilet was pried from the bathroom resulting in significant flood damage to the bathroom and the thieves made off with the work. America has still yet to be found. (2019)
Courtesy Staatliche Kunstsammlungen.