Biggest Heists In History

7 Of History’s Most Unbelievable Heists, From D.B. Cooper To The Lufthansa Robbery

Published November 13, 2020
Updated November 16, 2020

Discover the astounding stories behind the biggest heists in history, whether the perpetrators were eventually captured or the case remains unsolved.

From ingenious bank robberies, and that time a couple of malicious thieves fastened a collar bomb around a pizza delivery guy’s neck, to the elaborate mafia-backed Lufthansa Heist, these are the most astonishing grafts in recent history.

And as notorious as some of these heists are, it’s likely you’ve never heard of the people who carried them out — and some were so brilliantly conceived that we may never find the true culprits.

The Still-Unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

Empty Frames From Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesAn empty frame where Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, circa 1633, once was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was stolen in one of the biggest heists in history.

Eccentric art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner had only the noblest intentions when she opened her magnificent Boston home to the public in order to display her impressive art collection.

Gardner’s collection was made up of masterpieces from the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and it was assembled after a lifetime of travel. That’s why it was all the more devastating when, on the night of March 18, 1990, two men posing as police officers forced their way into the museum and made off with over $500 million worth of the world’s finest paintings and drawings.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist remains the largest private property theft in American history — and featured the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution.

French_imperial_eagle

Wikimedia CommonsA Napoleonic eagle, like this one, was stolen by the thieves, possibly in the belief that it was gold.

On the night of the burglary, the two security guards at work at the museum, Rick Abath and Randy Hestand, had no reason to believe that it would be anything more than a perfectly ordinary shift. But at 1:20 a.m., Abath allowed two “police officers” to enter the museum when they claimed that they were investigating a noise complaint.

Within 11 minutes, the two intruders handcuffed and blindfolded both guards and told them of their true intentions, then left them tied up in the museum basement with a warning to keep quiet. The burglars claimed that they would receive a reward in a year’s time if they did so.

With no one to interfere, the thieves went on a crime spree through the museum, cutting Jan Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, as well as Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with Obelisk from their frames after flinging them to the floor in order to break their protective glass cases.

They then snatched a bronze beaker from China’s Shang dynasty, followed by a tiny self-portrait by Rembrandt, five sketches by Edgar Degas, a French imperial eagle, and finally they pinched Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet.

Closeup On Empty Frames At The Stewart Gardner Museum

David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBesides the Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Manets, the thieves took largely worthless pieces, showing they knew nothing about art.

After the guards were discovered the next morning, investigators could only say one thing for sure: that the two thieves almost certainly knew nothing about art. They’d overlooked some of the most priceless paintings and objects in the city, while the sketches, eagle, and bronze beaker were worth only a few tens of thousands of dollars collectively.

Over the years, police have failed to prove that any of their numerous suspects, which included international art thieves and local gangsters, were responsible. Indeed, the polices’ best lead, a geriatric Boston mobster named Robert Gentile, is set to be released from prison, where he was incarcerated on a weapons charge.

To this day, the stolen artwork has never been recovered, and the museum still offers a $10 million reward for any information leading to its recovery.

Morgan Dunn
Morgan Dunn is a freelance writer and historian with a love for lost stories and the unknown.