How To Steal a European Painting

Why is art theft so common in Europe?

Blossoming Chestnut Branches by Vincent van Gogh

Last Sunday, an art museum in Zurich, Switzerland, was robbed of four paintings worth $160 million. The crooks managed to overpower the staff at gunpoint shortly before closing time and make off with a Van Gogh, a Monet, a Degas, and a Cézanne, which were easily visible in the trunk of their fleeing car. Similar heists have taken place in other European museums in recent years. Why is it so easy to steal art in Europe?

Smaller galleries and no guns. Europe has an especially high concentration of world-class art collections, many of which are housed in modest institutions. The art in Zurich was housed in a 19th-century villa, as opposed to a large-scale museum with a complicated entrance. Further, most security personnel in European museums aren’t armed, mostly due to a culture of openness and trust, but also for reasons of expense and liability—you wouldn’t want bullets flying around an enclosed space with lots of frightened tourists and precious objets d’art. While many galleries have alarms, guards, and other staff to prevent off-hour thefts, they don’t always take precautions to avoid the most obvious scenario: armed criminals walking right through the front door.


American art museums aren’t likely to have armed guards, either, but they do tend to have better security overall than their European counterparts. In the United States, your chances of finding a Van Gogh on display in a small gallery are slim; more likely, it would be in a museum on the scale of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. American museums also tend to be located in modern buildings, where it’s easier to set up high-tech sensors and alarms. The proprietors of centuries-old European houses are more reluctant to start drilling through walls and running cables in odd corners.

European museums with modest budgets would rather spend cash on acquisitions and conservations of their collection, rather than higher-tech, airport-style security. (More thorough measures are now in place at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, which temporarily lost its prized version of The Scream in 2004.) That means they must rely on the assumption that no armed robbery would ever take place.


Despite this optimism, there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of art heists in recent years. In response, the FBI instituted a Top Ten Art Crimes list in 2005. One of the most elaborate was a three-man heist of the National Museum of Stockholm, Sweden, where in 2000, $36 million worth of Renoir and Rembrandt paintings were taken in a scheme involving “diversionary explosions” in parts of the city that blocked police access to the site while the crooks escaped via motorboat.

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Explainer thanks Ton Cremers of the Museum Security Network and Steve Keller of Steve R. Keller and Associates.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2008: The original version asked, “Why is art theft so common in the EU?” and then went on to mention heists in Zurich and Oslo. Neither of those cities is in the European Union.