Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sensational Art Heists

The Da Vinci Probe

Madonna with the Yarnwinder
Madonna of the Yarwinder

Scotlands DrumlanrigCastle, the private residence of the Duke of Buccleuch, holds an astonishing collection of artwork and antiques, which can be viewed in special areas open to the public. Thousands come every year to see works by Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Holbein and other famous artists. Yet, perhaps one of the most prized artworks ever to grace the walls of the castle was a work by Leonardo da Vinci titled Madonna of the Yarwinder, which depicts the Madonna holding the baby Jesus grasping a yarnwinder. The work, painted in the beginning of the sixteenth century was considered one of da Vincis finest pieces, alongside the Mona Lisa, and like its counterpart it too was stolen.

Drumlanrig Castle, police
Drumlanrig Castle, police

In August 2003, two men posing as tourists boldly snatched the $65 million masterpiece after physically overpowering a female tour guide during a sightseeing exploration of the interior of the castle. As stunned visitors stared in awe, the two men fled from the castle and into a white Volkswagen Golf GTI car that held two more accomplices, the BBC reported in a March 2004 article. The four-member gang then abandoned that car in the forest just 2 miles from the castle and took off in a second vehicle believed to be a black BMW, the report further stated. According to an August 2003 BBC article, the painting was one of the most important stolen in the U.K. in the last 70 years.

The police released a description of the thieves hoping that it would result in their apprehension. One of the culprits was a Caucasian man in his late 30s to early 40s, about 510 with a slim build and wearing a brown leather jacket, brown baseball cap, round-framed glasses and cream trousers. The other man was several years older, Caucasian, about the same height and build as the first man and wearing with black pants, a safari-like vest and a cream shirt with matching color hat, the BBC reported. A description was also given of a third car, a dark green Rover with the registration number N770 JLP, which was allegedly used by the gang and was found near the Ae forest almost 3 months after the theft. Significant rewards have been offered for information leading to the arrest of the thieves and also for the safe return of the painting.

Car in Da Vinci theft recovered
Car in Da Vinci theft recovered

To date, investigators continue to diligently search for the painting and the thieves. They believe that it is likely the painting will one day resurface. Julian Radcliffe was quoted in an August 2004 BBC article stating that, the recovery rate for really good pictures is in excess of 20% - but you may have to wait 30 years, Statistics from the Art Loss Register shows that a majority of stolen paintings have been found in auction catalogs, many of which are being sold as excellent reproductions of the original. Selling them as such is one of the few ways criminals can profit from the art without getting caught. It is more than likely that auction house catalogs will be the first place investigators will look in their exhaustive hunt for the Madonna of the Yarwinder.