10 Notorious Thefts, Heists and Robberies

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A Brief History

On August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Louvre in Paris, stole perhaps the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  The theft created an international stir, and when the thief was caught two years later as he attempted to sell the painting to an Italian museum, he was treated as a national hero in Italy.  He only served six months in jail.  Every once in a while a famous or important object is stolen, or the circumstances of a theft make the crime notable.  Here 10 of the most notorious thefts are listed.  

Digging Deeper

10. James Jordan, Sr., 1993.

James Jordan, father of famous basketball player Michael Jordan, was driving up Interstate 95 in North Carolina when he pulled into a rest stop to take a nap.  A couple of miserable thugs spotted the 56-year-old Jordan asleep in his shining new Lexus, murdered him on the spot and stole his car and belongings.  Among the items taken by the robbers were two NBA championship rings Michael had given his dad.  When the morons used Jordan’s cell phone to make calls, the police quickly arrested them.  Showing up in court wearing the dead man’s clothes was what people in the police biz call “a clue.”  The robbers/murderers were sentenced to life in prison.  Cruel conspiracy theories have circulated that the elder Jordan was killed because of Michael’s gambling debts.  

9.  Sacco and Vanzetti, 1920.

These two Italian anarchists were accused of having killed two men during the robbery of a shoe factory in Massachusetts.  (Seriously, if nothing else, robbing a shoe factory is pretty bizarre!)  Their trial in 1921 and subsequent appeals were an international sensation, as questionable ballistics evidence and witness testimony helped foster widespread belief that Sacco and Vanzetti had been scapegoated.  Despite celebrity involvement on their behalf, the two were executed by electric chair in 1927.  Since then, many scholars have come to the conclusion that the men had indeed been innocent, although more recent examination of the case has created even more debate.  In 1977 the Governor of Massachusetts declared their innocence and proclaimed that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”

8.  Paris Bank Vault Tunnel, 2010.

In a scene right out of the movies, an unknown gang tunneled into a Paris bank vault, stealing the contents of hundreds of safe deposit boxes.  Since the contents of the boxes are only known to the depositors (and now the thieves…), the total value of the theft is unknown, but estimates are in the tens of millions of dollars.  To hide their tracks, the gang, nicknamed “The Termites,” then set a fire to trigger the sprinklers.  Since the thieves have not been caught, their methods and the tools they employed are as of yet unknown, but indications are that they were pretty sophisticated.  A similar crime was perpetrated in Germany three years later.

7.  Northfield Minnesota James Gang Raid, 1876.

Jesse James and his pals, known as the “James-Younger Gang,” decided that Minnesota would be a good place to rob a bank, but they were wrong.  Setting their sights on the First National Bank of Northfield, the notorious bank and train robbers were under the impression that the bank was affiliated with two former Union generals (Butler and Ames), and the southern Civil War vets were happy to get some revenge.  Townsfolk spotted the gang’s odd behavior and prepared for the expected robbery, ambushing the 8 would-be robbers.  The haul from the bank was only a few bags of nickels, as the manager refused to open the safe and was killed for his refusal.  Other immediate casualties included a bystander and two gang members.  Jesse James and his brother Frank managed to escape, but the rest were either captured or killed.

6.  Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1994 and 2004.

Known as Skrik in Norwegian, the painting is actually several paintings of varying colors of the same open mouth face in agony.  The one kept in the National Gallery in Oslo was stolen in 1994, and the one kept at the Munch Museum was stolen in 2004.  Whereas the 1994 theft was recovered only a few months later, it took 2 years to recover the painting stolen in 2004.  The 1994 thieves used the opening of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway as a distraction and left a taunting note, “Thanks for the poor security.”  They were caught and convicted.  In the 2004 theft, another Munch painting, Madonna, was also stolen.  Police have not revealed the circumstances of the recovery of the paintings, although some of the thieves have been convicted.

5.  Pizza Guy Collar Bomb, 2003.

The robber/victim, a pizza delivery guy, walked up to a teller in an Erie, Pennsylvania bank and robbed the place, showing a bomb around his neck and chest.  Captured only 15 minutes later, he frantically told police he had been kidnapped and forced to commit the robbery and that the bomb was going to go off.  Before the bomb squad personnel could arrive, the bomb did indeed blow up, killing the robber.  Was he truly an innocent victim or had he been “in” on the crime?  Turns out he had been one of the conspirators, but when he discovered that the bomb around his neck was real (he was led to believe it would be fake) he tried to back out but was forced at gunpoint to continue.  The other two conspirators were caught and convicted.  Video of Brian Wells blowing up made it to the news and can be found on the internet.

4.  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist, 1990.

Artwork by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Degas and others was stolen from the Boston museum by two men dressed in police uniforms.  Still an unsolved crime, none of the stolen art has of yet been recovered. 

3.  Pallets of American Cash in Iraq, 2011.

In 2011 it was reported that pallets of shrink-wrapped $100 bills sent to Iraq had gone missing.  Reports of $6 billion to $20 billion in missing cash were released, revealing an almost unbelievable level of incompetence and mismanagement on the part of the Americans entrusted with the shipment and handling of these vast sums.  A few months later, the U.S. Government reported that $6.6 billion had been found in the Iraqi bank it was intended for, but the fuzzy math and questionable reliability of those involved means that perhaps a few billion are still missing.  Any American who thinks the Iraq invasion was a good idea should contemplate this mess in the equation.

2.  Great Train Robbery, 1963.

A gang of 15 thugs and a retired train operator stormed a mail train on the Glasgow to London route, bashing the engineer in the head with a metal bar and making off with over £2.6 million (£48 million in today’s money).  The robbers had stopped the train on a bridge by manipulating the traffic signals.  Because of a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland, the amount of cash on the train was around ten times the usual amount.  It only took police five days to locate the hideaway location, recover evidence and start making arrests.  Of those involved, 12 were convicted and imprisoned.  Only about £400,000 of the stolen money has ever been recovered.  History and Headlines Fact:  The weight of the stolen loot amounted to about 2.5 long tons.  History and Headlines Trivia:  The son of one of the robbers went on to become part of the band that sang the Sopranos theme song (Woke up This Morning”).

1.  Mona Lisa, 1911.

The thief kept the Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, in his apartment for two years while a forger made copies to sell to unscrupulous buyers who thought they were buying the stolen painting.  An Italian nationalist, he then attempted to sell the painting to a museum in Italy because he felt the Mona Lisa should be on display at home but was caught during his efforts to sell the masterpiece.  The estimated value of the painting is $760 million in today’s money, making it the most valuable painting in the world.  By a long shot.

Question for students (and subscribers): In your opinion, what other thefts are worthy of inclusion on this list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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For another interesting event that happened on August 21, please see the History and Headlines article: “Oldsmobile is Founded (Closes Doors 107 Years Later).”

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Scotti, R.A.  Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa.  Vintage, 2010.

The featured image in this article, a mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, who was believed to have stolen the Mona Lisa in 1911, is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymousThis applies to the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of 70 years after the work was made available to the public and the author never disclosed their identity.  This work was published before January 1, 1925 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship.  It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or fewer since publication.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.