Masterpieces and Mischief: The Intriguing World of Art Scandals

Within the esteemed confines of galleries and museums lies a captivating world of crime, controversy, and mystery. 

The world of art is certainly not immune to a scandal, with many infamous stories over the course of history being translated into films and novels. Here are a few of my favourite movie-worthy tales: 

Theft is often the scandal that rocks the art world. The Scream by Edvard Munch, one of the most iconic artworks in history, has been the subject of theft not once but twice. Munch created four distinct versions of the painting. The first heist occurred during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, when thieves broke into the National Gallery of Oslo. After the museum refused to pay a ransom, the Norwegian police and British detectives recovered the painting later that year. The second theft occurred in 2004, when another version of The Scream as well as Munch’s Madonna were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Masked gunmen stormed the museum in broad daylight, ripping the works from the walls and fleeing. Two years later, the police recovered both works.

Which is the real Girl with a Pearl Earring? The one on the right is the original by Johannes Vermeer, the left is a forgery.

Picasso is no stranger to theft. His portrait The Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986, just one year after the gallery acquired it. A ransom note was left behind calling the then arts minister a “pompous fathead” and “a tiresome old bag of swamp gas”, demanding that he increase funding for young artists. Juan Davila provided a copy to the gallery to display in the meantime, which was also stolen. Fortunately, the original was discovered 16 days later and returned, unharmed. Not so lucky was Picasso’s Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois. While this crime was being investigated, the thief discarded the piece and it has never been found, further enhancing its purported value today. 

Art has also been entangled in murder. Caravaggio, known for his aggression and trouble with the law, killed a man in 1606 and had to flee Rome. While on the run, he painted some of his darkest works, full of regret and sin. Benvenuto Cellini, in the 16th century, also murdered an innocent person and was never punished due to his status as a famed artist.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois, 1911, missing after theft from Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Like any luxury item, when there’s demand, counterfeits will inevitably emerge. In 1996, art historian Thomas Hoving suggested that as much as 40% of the high-end art market consisted of counterfeits. Thanks to modern-day technology, it has now become very challenging for forgers to succeed in their deception. In the case of Thomas Keating, he openly admitted to producing over 2,000 fake paintings and later leveraged his reputation by becoming a presenter on British TV where he shared insights into the techniques of renowned artists from the past. Wolfgang Beltracchi also successfully deceived the global art community for nearly four decades by creating and selling counterfeit paintings after early 20th century masters, amassing a significant fortune, and in 2014 a documentary film was produced chronicling his questionable endeavours. 

The art world has always been a fascinating realm, full of beautiful objects and people, greed, and desire. In such a world, it is no surprise that mischief and scandal would infiltrate. As Charles Baudelaire stated, “A work of art should be like a well-planned crime.” In the world of art, the allure of the shadowy and controversial continues to play a fascinating and enduring role and makes for engrossing dinner party conversation.

By Lucy Foster, Senior Specialist,  Fine Art

Banner Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944) The Scream

November 2023