Stealing History: 10 of the Most Tragic Artifact Thefts in History
Throughout history, the theft of valuable artifacts has captivated the public's imagination, revealing the audacity and cunning of those who sought to possess pieces of our shared heritage. These artifact thefts not only deprived the world of precious treasures but also left a lasting impact on cultural heritage and our understanding of the past. From the mysterious disappearance of the Crown Jewels of Ireland to the controversial looting of the Baghdad Museum, these 10 tragic thefts have become iconic examples of the challenges faced in preserving our historical legacy. Join us as we delve into the stories behind these remarkable heists and the far-reaching consequences they have had on the world of art and archaeology.
1. The Mystery of the Theft of the Crown Jewels of Ireland
The Crown Jewels of Ireland were regarded as amongst the most valuable of Irish royal relics. But even so, they were brazenly stolen from Dublin Castle in July 1907. The jewels consisted of a diamond star and badge of the Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, which was the highest chivalric order of knighthood in Ireland, and were valued at around £10,000 at the time of the theft. The jewels were kept in a safe in the Bedford Tower of Dublin Castle, which was guarded by an armed sentry. The artifact theft was discovered on the morning of July 6, 1907, when the safe was found open and the jewels were missing. The investigation that followed was one of the largest and most extensive in Irish history, with more than 200 people being interviewed and more than 8,000 doors being knocked on in the search for suspects.
Dublin Police notice of theft of crown jewels. (Public Domain)
Despite the efforts of the police, no one was ever charged with the theft, and the jewels were never recovered. The case remains unsolved to this day, although there have been many theories and rumors over the years as to who might have been responsible. The theft of the Crown Jewels of Ireland was a major embarrassment for the British government, which was in control of Ireland at the time. It was seen as a symbol of the increasing unrest and dissatisfaction among the Irish population, who were seeking greater autonomy and independence from British rule.
2. Rosetta Stone Looted from Its Homeland
The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian artifact that played a critical role in deciphering hieroglyphs, one of the earliest forms of writing in the world. It was discovered in 1799 by French soldiers in the Nile Delta during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and caused a great sensation. In 1801, after Napoleon's defeat, the British gained control of the Rosetta Stone as part of the Treaty of Alexandria. The artifact was brought from Egypt to the British Museum in London, where it has been on public display ever since.
Possible reconstruction of the full Rosetta stele. (Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0)
The theft of the Rosetta Stone itself did not occur as it was discovered during a military campaign. However, the Rosetta Stone has been the subject of controversy and calls for repatriation to Egypt by some people who argue that it was illegally taken by the British during their colonial rule of Egypt.
Egypt has requested the return of the Rosetta Stone numerous times over the years, but the British Museum has refused to return it, citing concerns over the protection and preservation of the artifact, as well as the importance of the Rosetta Stone to the museum's collection and to the history of scholarship. Either way, such a valuable historical artifact unjustly became war plunder - like countless other valuable relics.
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3. Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment” in the Hands of a Pirate
Throughout history, brazen pirates did not shy away from stealing the most valuable items they could lay hands on, caring little for the repercussions. Paul Beneke was one such pirate - a privateer to be more precise - whose theft left lasting consequences on the art world. In 1473, while prowling the frigid waters of the North Sea, which were dominated by the powerful Hanseatic League, Beneke intercepted a galley, called “St. Matthew”. The ship was registered to Tommaso Portinari, a wealthy Italian banker operating in Bruges with the Medici Bank. However, the ship truly belonged to the English. Either way, Beneke cared little. On board the galley, he discovered valuable loot: the majestic triptych painted by Hans Memling between 1467 and 1471, called “The Last Judgment”. He promptly snatched it.
Hans Memling's Last Judgement, c. late 1460s, at the National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland. (Public Domain)
The theft caused widespread conflict, and the papal court was soon involved. The Hanseatic League defended the actions of Paul Beneke, calling it a legitimate act of war, as the League was in a state of war against England. In the end, after long procedures, nothing came forth - the painting was simply never returned to the rightful owners. Over time, it was donated to the St. Mary’s Church in Danzig (Gdańsk), and later ended up in the National Museum in Gdańsk in Poland.
4. The Stunningly Simple Artifact Theft of the Mona Lisa
The theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris on August 21st, 1911, is one of the most famous art heists in history. The painting, created by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, is considered one of the most valuable and famous works of art in the world. On the day of the theft, a man named Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant who had worked at the Louvre as a handyman, walked into the museum in his work clothes and removed the painting from its display case when the room it was in was vacant. He then hid the painting under his smock and walked out of the museum. Simple as.
This theft caused a sensation around the world. The French police launched a massive manhunt, but the painting remained missing for more than two years. Peruggia simply took it to his apartment and kept it in a box. Two years passed and he took it with him back to Italy, still not caught. But he became impatient, and in 1913, Peruggia was finally caught after attempting to sell the painting to a gallery owner in Florence, Italy. He was quickly arrested, and the painting was returned to the Louvre amid great fanfare.
Peruggia claimed that he had stolen the painting out of a sense of patriotism, believing that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy, where he felt it belonged. He was sentenced to one year and 15 days in prison for his crime. The theft of the Mona Lisa brought the issue of art theft to the forefront of public attention.
Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Mona Lisa. It now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. (Public Domain)
5. The Tragic Looting of the Baghdad Museum
War is always a threat for valuable relics kept in museums. The looting of the Baghdad Museum, also known as the National Museum of Iraq, took place in April 2003, during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The museum, located in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad, contained some of the world's most significant historical and cultural artifacts from the Mesopotamian civilization, including ancient sculptures, manuscripts, and other archaeological treasures.
The looting began on April 10, 2003, following fierce fighting, and lasted for several days, during which time more than 15,000 artifacts were stolen or destroyed by random looters. The thieves targeted the most valuable and easily transportable items, leaving behind larger and heavier pieces that were difficult to move.
The looting of the museum was widely condemned as a significant loss to the world's cultural heritage. It was later found that the plunder could have been preventable, as U.S. troops were stationed nearby but did not intervene to stop the looters. Some of the stolen artifacts have since been recovered and returned to the museum, but many remain missing and are believed to have been smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market.
6. Marlborough Diamond Lost Without Trace
The Chicago mobsters, originating with the infamous mobster Al Capone, were always in the eye of the public for their many crimes and thefts. But the 1980 theft of the Marlborough Diamond really stood out. It was conducted by a notorious, high-ranking member of the Chicago mob, Joseph Scalise. On September 11, 1980, together with a colleague, Scalise undertook a brazen, $3.6 million jewel robbery in broad daylight. The two entered Graff's jewelry store in London's busy and wealthy Knightsbridge area, quickly stealing the 45-carat Marlborough diamond, along with many other expensive jewels. The entire theft took only a minute.
The diamond, extremely valuable and exquisitely made, was originally made for the Dukes of Marlborough, hence the name. Its value was exceptional, and it was precisely because of this that Scalise targeted it. The heist, however, fell through and was not well planned. Scalise and his accomplice were promptly arrested and jailed for a long time, but the diamond was even so - never retrieved. It is believed to have been sent to New York almost immediately after the theft, but to whom, it is not known. Its trace vanished, and it remains missing to this day.
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7. The Theft of the Elgin Marbles
The theft of the Elgin Marbles is one of the most controversial cases of cultural theft in history. The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions, and architectural pieces that were originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. The Marbles were removed from Greece by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and brought to England, where they are now housed in the British Museum.
Photo of the Parthenon Marbles, East Pediment. The Elgin Marbles have been controversial since this artifact theft took place. (Justin Norris/CC BY 2.0)
The removal of the Elgin Marbles from Greece has been a source of controversy and dispute for over two centuries. Lord Elgin claimed that he had been granted permission by the Ottoman authorities, who then controlled Greece, to remove the sculptures. The truth of these claims has been disputed, and his actions have been criticized as being illegal and destructive to Greece's cultural heritage. Greece has long sought the return of the Elgin Marbles to their homeland, arguing that they were taken under dubious circumstances and that they belong to the Greek people. The British Museum has refused to return them, citing concerns over the safety and preservation of the sculptures, as well as legal and ethical issues surrounding the ownership of cultural artifacts.
The debate over the ownership and display of the Elgin Marbles continues to this day, with supporters of both sides arguing passionately for their position. The case has also sparked wider discussions about cultural heritage and the responsibility of museums and governments in protecting and preserving the world's cultural treasures.
8. Elgin Again: Plundering the Old Summer Palace
The looting of the Old Summer Palace, also known as the Yuanmingyuan, is one of the most notorious cases of cultural destruction in human history. The Old Summer Palace was a vast complex of palaces, gardens, and temples located on the outskirts of Beijing, China. It was built in the 18th century by the Qing Dynasty emperors and was considered a masterpiece of Chinese architecture and landscape design, a true icon of Eastern culture.
In 1860, however, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops invaded Beijing and looted and burned the Old Summer Palace. The attack was in retaliation for the killing of several Western diplomats by Chinese officials. The mass looting was ordered by James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the son of Lord Elgin who was responsible for the looting of “Elgin Marbles” from Greece. The British troops destroyed most of the buildings, burned the gardens, and stole countless treasures, including artworks, sculptures, and precious artifacts.
Sketch of the Looting of the Yunamingyuan (Old Summer Palace) in 1860.
The infamous event was a devastating blow to Chinese culture and remains a source of anger and resentment among many Chinese people. The destruction of the palace and the theft of its treasures have been seen as a symbol of Western imperialism and the exploitation of China by foreign powers. Most of the stolen artifacts have never been returned to China.
9. Babylonian Looting of the Temple of Solomon
The mighty Babylonians were a formidable power of the ancient world. They reigned across Mesopotamia and subjected many cultures to their rule. Some of these cultures, however, chose to rebel. The Israelite Kingdom of Judah rose in revolt between 601 and 586 BC, but ultimately did not prevail. This revolt culminated in the Babylonian victory, as they entered Jerusalem in 587 BC, completely destroying it and sacking its famed Solomon’s Temple. They also deported the Jewish population of Jerusalem to Babylon as part of their complete conquest of the Kingdom of Judah.
Solomon's Temple was plundered several times. Painting by James Tissot, c. 1900. (Public Domain)
The Temple of Solomon was a significant religious and cultural site for the Jewish people, and its destruction was a significant event in their history. Their exile lasted for several decades until the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. According to the traditional narrative, as they sacked the temple, Babylonians looted many priceless artifacts and relics. Amongst these was the fabled Ark of the Covenant, the gilded chest containing the Ten Commandments. Besides these, they looted many other “vessels of God”. Their fate following the looting remains a historical enigma - as the relics were never retrieved again.
10. The Daring Heist of the Crown Jewels of England
The Crown Jewels of England are a collection of valuable ceremonial objects, including crowns, scepters, and other regalia, that are used in the coronation of British monarchs. The jewels are considered a symbol of the British monarchy and have a significant historical and cultural value. As such, you’d think that they couldn’t be easily stolen. Think again!
The theft of these jewels occurred in 1671, and was carried out by a man named Thomas Blood, who boldly posed as a clergyman to gain entry to the Jewel House. Blood got on the better side of the keeper of the jewels, getting acquainted. Later, Blood and his accomplices attacked the keeper of the jewels, bound and gagged him, and then smashed the display cases containing the jewels. They managed to grab the crown, the orb, and the scepter, but were caught while attempting to escape.
While such a crime would earn a thief the death sentence in those times, Thomas Blood interestingly was not punished, but was instead granted a pardon by King Charles II, who was said to be impressed by his daring and audacity. Blood was also rewarded with land in Ireland. The Crown Jewels were recovered and returned to the Tower of London, where they remain on display to this day.
Top image: The heart-breaking theft of some artifacts in history: The Crown Jewels and an illustration of Thomas Blood. The Mona Lisa. Dublin Police notice of theft of crown jewels. Hans Memling's Last Judgement. Elgin Marbles. Rosetta stele. Solomon's Temple. Source: Historic Royal Palaces, Public Domain, Public Domain, Public Domain, Justin Norris/CC BY 2.0, Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0, Public Domain
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