What is the most frequently stolen artwork in history? The answer is The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, stolen six times (seven, depending on who you ask). The most frequently given incorrect answer (even the Guinness Book of World Records got this wrong) is in fact second runner-up for the dubious distinction of “most stolen artwork:” Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, which was lifted from London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery on four separate occasions. Here, in brief, is the story of the so-called “Takeaway Rembrandt.”
This is one half of a pair of pendant portraits by Rembrandt, painted in 1632. Jacob de Gheyn III (1596-1641) was an engraver from Utrecht, who was portrayed opposite his friend, Maurits Huygens, each in their own oil painting, but meant to be displayed as a pair. The painting is particularly small (meaning portable), only 11.8 x 9.8 inches (29.9 x 24.9 cm) in size.
Just why this painting has been the object of four thefts is uncertain — nor is it clear whether more than one theft was undertaken by a single person or group. In fact, only the bare facts have been published about the thefts, but here they are.
Theft One: One of Nine
In 1966, a group of thieves broke into the Dulwich Picture Gallery during the night and stole nine paintings, including three Rembrandts and a Rubens drawing. The theft made headlines, launching the little-visited Gallery to fame, and the publicity may have spooked the criminals. The Rembrandts were, shortly thereafter, found by someone walking his dog on Streatham Common in London, abandoned under a bush. The rest of the stolen art was found under a bench in a nearby cemetery.
Theft Two: He Looks Like My Mother
The second theft sounds like the punch line to a joke. A visitor to the Picture Gallery stuffed the painting under his sweater and walked out of the museum with it. He was, however, quickly found — because he was bicycling around London’s South Circular with the painting seated in the basket of his bike. When arrested and asked why he took it, the man said that the painting reminded him of his mother.
Theft Three: Taxi Cab Recovery
In late August 1981, the portrait was stolen yet again, most likely slipped out under a coat or inside a bag. The public was never informed about who stole the work or how it was pulled off. The crime was only discovered some weeks after the painting had gone missing, and its recovery was kept equally murky. Police found the painting in a taxi with four men in it — depending on which source you refer to, some say that these men were arrested, while others say that some deal was made for the return of the painting via the taxi, and that the men were never charged.
Theft Four: Skylight Heist
The most cinematic of the thefts took place after hours in 1983. A skylight at the museum was smashed, a la Mission: Impossible, and thieves entered the museum vertically, by shimmying down a rope. The alarm was triggered as soon as the skylight broke, and the police arrived in three minutes, but the thieves had already escaped. It might be surprising that this is not the only art-theft-by-skylight: Art was stolen from Colnaghi Gallery in Manhattan and the Montreal Museum of Art through this dramatic method of entry. The motive for the theft is unknown, as is the reason for its recovery. On October 8, 1986, police received an anonymous tip that the painting could be found in the left luggage section of a rail station by the British military barracks in Munster, Germany.
It’s no small distinction to be remembered as the second-most-frequently-stolen artwork in history — still, credit must still go to The Ghent Altarpiece for claiming first place. The Guinness folks have been informed of the error in their records. Van Eyck’s “Takeaway Altarpiece” will soon get the dubious distinction it deserves.
Dr. Noah Charney is a bestselling author and professor of art history specializing in art crime. His book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Famous Painting tells the story of the many thefts of The Ghent Altarpiece. He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.