The Art of the Steal: A Brief History of Museum Theft in D.C.
It’s no theft of the Mona Lisa, but the tale of the “flea market” Renoir was one of the best art-theft stories the D.C. area has seen in years—made irresistible by the fishy claims of a local woman who, saying she paid $7 for Renoir’s “On the Shore of the Seine” at a flea market in West Virginia, teetered into hot water after she tried to sell it at an auction house for a six-figure sum.
As reported in the Washington Post, the Renoir actually disappeared from an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951 and wound up inside the home of a Fairfax woman who had attended school in the Baltimore area at the time. As the woman reached the end of her life, her daughter, under the name “Renoir Girl,” attempted to cash in on the artwork, but ran out of luck when its true provenance was unveiled. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the painting must return to Baltimore.
Because security has improved at museums over the years, theft from local institutions isn't common. But that wasn't the case even just 30 years ago. For a spell during the late 1970s and early 1980s, thieves targeted D.C. museums so frequently that they made it look as easy as knocking off a liquor store.
Below, a brief history of notable thefts from D.C. museums:
A 25-year-old museum volunteer from New Carrollton, Md., is convicted of possessing two fossils stolen from the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum: a 50 million year-old stingray skeleton and a 5 million year-old Great White shark tooth. Together, they're worth more than $10,000; he sold them to a dealer for $300, according to a Washington Post report.
A diamond-studded gold snuff box worth $125,000—a gift from Catherine the Great to her boy toy Count Grigory Orlov—is pinched from the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) when the burglar alarm is broken.
A $25,000 silver pen used by Secretary of State John Hay to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1898 goes missing from the Museum of American History.
Two swords and two gold medals are snatched from a display case at American History.
As part of a major investigation into local fencing operations, the FBI arrests three men, including a Smithsonian security guard, on charges related to the theft of the artifacts stolen from the Smithsonian between 1979 and 1981. Agents recover several of the items, including the John Hay pen, which had been sold to a local dealer for $25.
That same month, a woman calls a Virginia radio program offering to sell a rare, blue-steel machine gun. The FBI quickly tracks her down, seizes the gun, and discovers it is a pre-World War II German aircraft weapon—worth $5,000—that was stolen from a Smithsonian restoration center in Maryland.
A set of gold-and-ivory false teeth once belonging to George Washington go missing from a storage locker at the American History Museum, where they were on loan from the University of Maryland. The lower plate is later found in storage, but the gold upper plate—probably melted down for cash—is never recovered.
The FBI reveals that Catherine’s snuff box is lost forever: It was sold to a K Street dealer for $1,800, stripped of its diamonds, and melted down. Congress later approves an additional $2.1 million to boost security at the Smithsonian.
When a man leaves the Phillips Collection with his arms wrapped around a bunchy tweed coat, a guard suspects funny business. The museum soon realizes that the man—along with a female companion—made off with “Virgin of Alsace,” a 1920 statue by Antoine Bourdelle valued at $35,000. The next day, the museum receives a call from an unknown woman who says the statue can be found in an alley behind an Amoco station at 18th and S streets NW. A group of museum staff, including director Laughlin Phillips, rushes to the site and finds the marble piece inside of a trash bag. With it, the thieves had left a note that criticized the museum’s lax security and apologized for the inconvenience.
A 19-year-old mail clerk is charged for his role in the theft of 10 books from the Smithsonian's library in the Natural History building. The rare books, worth about $4,000 in all, were sold to two D.C. bookstores for $1,025.
On New Year’s Eve, a man pries open a display case at the National Portrait Gallery and makes off with four notes penned by Abraham Lincoln and Union Army generals Ulysses S. Grant, George Custer, and George Meade. Their value is estimated at $10,000 in all. The thief is arrested, and all four letters are eventually recovered.
A former Alexandria mayoral candidate is arrested after leaving the Library of Congress with two Pacific Railroad Survey maps stuffed under his sweater. (Not a museum, no, but I couldn't leave this one out.)
In 1975, Thomas Moran’s “Valley of Cuernavaca” (right) disappeared from the National Collection of Fine Arts while the painting sat propped against a wall waiting to be hung up. Nearly 20 years later, the Moran turns up at Weschler and Son’s downtown auction house. It's returned to the Smithsonian, where it remains today.
An assistant curator at the Air and Space Museum pleads guilty to stealing and reselling about $24,000 in military artifacts over a four-year period.
After stealing five sculptures valued at $90,000 from the garden of Bethesda’s Ratner Museum, a D.C. man sells them to a local scrap dealer for $150. The dealer soon realizes he's just bought stolen goods, and he calls police. The museum's Phillip Ratner tells the Washington Post, "The lesson that it has taught me is not to put the bronze outside."
Sources: Washington Post and Associated Press archives