Stolen Vermeers

A history of theft throughout the years

The Love Letter (Around 1669) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum – 1971

On 23 September 1971, The Love Letter was stolen from the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels.

The painting was on loan from the Rijksmuseum for the exhibition Rembrandt and his Age. The thief hid himself in the exhibition space and once the museum had closed for the day, he cut the canvas from its frame using a potato peeler. In the subsequent days, he contacted the Belgian media to lay out his demands: he would return the painting in exchange for 200 million Belgian francs, which was to be given to the victims of famine and war in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Nearly two weeks later, the police arrested the thief, who saw himself as something of a modern-day Robin Hood. The thief was 21-year-old Mario Roymans. The police apprehended him after he made another call to the media from a petrol station. The owner of the petrol station overheard his call and alerted the police. The painting was badly damaged – not only from being cut with the potato peeler, but also because Roymans had buried the canvas in a forest, before digging it up and hiding it under his bed. The work was restored and a year later, it went back on display at the Rijksmuseum.

The Guitar Player (c.1672) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: KENWOOD

The Guitar Player, Kenwood House – 1974

In February 1974, The Guitar Player was stolen in its frame from Kenwood House, London, after thieves managed to force the iron bars on a window to break in.

The frame was quickly recovered less than a mile from Kenwood House, but there was no trace of the painting. It was thought that the painting was stolen for a specific buyer – after all, you cannot simply sell a famous painting such as this on the legal art market when everyone knows that the work is stolen – or that it would be held to ransom. The police did indeed receive various anonymous demands, including for $1.1 million in food to be donated to the Caribbean island of Grenada in exchange for the return of the painting. The criminals threatened to burn the painting if this demand was not met. Following an anonymous tip, the police eventually found the painting in the cemetery of St Bartholomew’s Church in London. The painting had been wrapped in newspaper and showed some signs of damp, but appeared otherwise undamaged. Although it has never been proved, the theft is assumed to have been the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and was probably masterminded by Rose Dugdale, who was later involved in other high-profile art thefts.

Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid (c.1670) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: National Gallery of Ireland

Woman Writing a Letter, National Gallery of Ireland – 1974 + 1986

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid was stolen not once, but twice, and thankfully recovered on both occasions. In 1974, it was stolen along with 18 other paintings (including works by Goya and Rubens) from Russborough House in Ireland, the residence of Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Lady Clementine.

Several men and one woman, Rose Dugdale, violently forced their way into the house and tied up the married couple. In less than 10 minutes, they were back outside with their haul, which had an estimated value of £8 million. Dugdale had close ties with the IRA, and it is thought that they planned to demand a ransom in order to support the IRA financially. The police were quickly able to ascertain the whereabouts of the artworks and arrest Dugdale – the IRA denied any involvement. Twelve years later, in May 1986, 18 paintings were once again stolen from Russborough House. This time, the theft was the work of Martin Cahill, a criminal specialised in art theft. Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid was finally recovered in Antwerp in 1993, when it was offered for sale to two undercover police officers posing as collectors. In the meantime, ownership of the Beit family art collection had been transferred to the National Gallery of Ireland. When this painting was recovered, it therefore became part of the museum’s collection.

The Concert (About 1665) by Jan VermeerIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Concert, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - 1990

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as police officers entered the Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art, one of which was Jan Vermeer’s The Concert.

Dutch Room (1926) by T.E. Marr and SonIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Image of the Dutch Room taken in 1926, shortly after Isabella's death in 1924. The painting on the right and next to the window depicts the Vermeer in its rightful place.

Dutch Room (2016) by Sean DunganIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Image of the Dutch Room taken in 2016. The empty frame on the right once held Vermeer's The Concert.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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