Ingenious Art Thieves Steal Picasso and Mondrian Works in Athens by Tricking Guards

Athens' National Gallery workers remove the "Unknown Treasures" exhibition banner on the day of the theft
(Courtesy Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

In just seven minutes flat, thieves made off with three treasured artworks from Athens's National Gallery during the early hours of Monday morning. The works, by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and 17th-century Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia, have been collectively valued at €5.5 million ($7 million) and were part of the temporary exhibition "Unknown Treasures," which drew from the museum's permanent collection. The exhibition was due to close on Sunday. 

The stolen Picasso painting in particular held a powerful significance for the museum. The artist gave the 1939 painting "Woman's Head" to Greece in 1949 as a tribute to the country's resistance to Nazism, dedicating it on the back "in homage to the Greek people." The remaining works stolen were Mondrian's "Windmill," an early figurative painting from 1905, and a pen-and-ink drawing by Caccia (also called "il Moncalvo") representing the ecstasy of Saint Diego of Alcala.

"These were no amateurs," police spokesperson Athanassios Kokkalakis told Sky News. "Their moves and operation were very well calculated." The thieves purposely set off the alarm system several times Sunday night by opening a balcony door whose lock they had broken — but they didn't enter the museum itself. This sneaky tactic led museum guards to deactivate at least one of the alarms. Then, as dawn approached, the culprits entered the museum and took four paintings from their frames. This triggered a motion detector in the exhibition area, and a guard witnessed a single intruder and gave chase. The intruder escaped, but dropped one of the four paintings, another work by Mondrian called "Landscape with Farm."

After "Unknown Treasures" ended its run, the museum had planned to close for renovations, including security improvements. According to AFP, there were few guards on duty due to a three-day strike. "I am very sorry because an artwork of huge value was stolen," citizen protection minister Christos Papoutsis told AFP, referring to the Picasso canvas. "This incident should prompt a re-evaluation of the National Gallery's security arrangements."

Located in one of the best-policed areas of Athens, the National Gallery is Greece's largest state art museum. Its collection ranges from the 14th to the 20th century and includes works by Rodin, Matisse, and Rubens. Works by Dürer and Rembrandt were also on view during the "Unknown Treasures" exhibition. Interpol has been informed of the theft, and police are hopeful about the stolen works traveling no farther. "With the publicity this heist has received, it's unlikely these works will ever make their way into the black market," said spokesperson Kokkalakis.