Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sensational Art Heists

The Manchester Robbery



Tahitian Landscape, Gauguin
Tahitian Landscape, Gauguin

Sometime between the late evening hours of April 26 and the early morning hours of April 27, 2003, thieves broke into Manchester , England's Whitworth Gallery and went on a rampage stealing three paintings valued at a little more than $1.5 million dollars. The looted paintings included, Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape, Van Gogh's Fortification of Paris with Houses and Picasso's Poverty. It's not known how the robbers infiltrated the museum but somehow they managed to evade CCTV security cameras, alarms and 24-hour outside guard patrols, the BBC reported.

Whitworth Art Gallery
Whitworth Art Gallery

The paintings were not noticed missing until mom ents before the gallery was set to open for the day on Sunday, April 27, 2003. Investigators believed that the theft was the work of professionals who obviously planned the robbery thoroughly before carrying it out. Cahal Milmo quoted a police spokesman in The Independent, saying that investigators launched a major inquiry to piece together what happened. Surprisingly, just one day after the theft, detectives were given a vital clue about the paintings' whereabouts.

Poverty, Picasso
Poverty, Picasso

On April 28, an anonymous caller rang up police headquarters claiming that the paintings were in a public toilet near the museum. Investigators immediately checked out the tip and were amazed to find all three works of art crammed into a cardboard tube behind a toilet. The public bathroom where the paintings were discovered was just 200 yards from the museum. It was the breakthrough investigators and museum staff alike had been hoping for.

Public toilet, stolen art recovered
Public toilet, stolen art recovered

As investigators removed the paintings from the tube they discovered a handwritten note, which read, "We did not intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight a breach in security," Ian Burrell reported in The Independent on April 29, 2003. However, investigators didn't buy it. The former head of Scotland Yard's arts and antiques squad Dick Ellis was quoted by Burrell saying, "It's more likely to be a case of some would-be art thieves realizing that they've stolen a commodity that they would not have the first clue how to dispose of." Paintings such as those stolen would be too recognizable to potential buyers, making it virtually impossible to sell.

When the paintings were found it was obvious that they had suffered damage, due to mishandling and weather exposure. The Van Gogh was the most damaged of the three paintings, with a tear in the fabric on one corner. Burrell said that the other two paintings had minor water damage from being crammed into the tube. Luckily, the damage to the paintings was repairable and after just a few weeks they were returned to their places on the walls of the museum.

Fortification, Van Gogh
Fortification, Van Gogh

The museum was grateful for the recovery of the art but wanted to make sure a theft would never occur again. Consequently, security was enhanced and employees more thoroughly scrutinized. Investigators suggested that there might have been a chance that someone employed by the museum might have assisted the criminals, yet the theory has never been substantiated. To date, police still have no leads concerning the identity of the thieves but have not given up their search.

 

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