Art Theft: Munch’s Oslo Museum ‘Scream’

 41rx+4gIdwL._On the 12 of February 1994, the day of the opening of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, two men broke into Oslo’s National Gallery and lifted its version of The Scream. The painting had been moved down to a second-level gallery in honour of the Olympic festivities, presumably to become more accessible to the growing number of visitors. It took the thieves 50 seconds to climb a ladder, smash through a window and cut the uninsured artwork from the wall with wire cutters. They left their tools behind to make a swift exit, but not before writing a note reading “Thanks for the poor security”. The entire episode was filmed by security cameras. The international mass media covering the games sensationalised the incident, as expected.

In Lost Art, Jennifer Mundy writes, “In most cases it is clear why a work of art is lost. It can be wilfully destroyed or accidentally mislaid. It may never have been intended to endure; or the materials used may have proved ephemeral. But sometimes the loss can be the result of a cause or a motive that is more difficult to discern or understand. When a work of art is stolen it is usually obvious that the thieves knew what they were taking and why: to use as collateral in criminal activities, to resell on a black market and make major financial gain, or, occasionally, to grace the home of a private collector. (…) there may be an initial flurry of press reports, but a blanket of official silence quickly descends, as the police undertake their enquiries and, more often than not, owners await a ransom demand or contact from an intermediary. Typically, it may be several months or even several years before those holding a stolen artwork make any attempt to contact its owners.”  


This was the case with Munch’s work too. After a month of laying low, the thieves demanded a US$1 million ransom from the gallery, but the latter refused to pay it. Instead, the Norwegian police set up a sting operation in collaboration with the British police and the Getty Museum and the painting was recovered undamaged on the 7th of May 1994. Two Metropolitan Police officers trapped the thieves by pretending they would buy the painting for £250,000. Apparently, it is quite common practice for British police to be involved in recuperating stolen art in Europe, partly because about 60% of it ends up trafficked or clandestinely auctioned in London.

Except for a tiny pinprick, The Scream was indeed found intact in Aasgaarstrand, a seaside town outside Oslo in south Norway where Munch painted many of his well-known works. Two years later, four men were convicted, including one who had already stolen Munch’s The Vampire years earlier, yet they were released on legal grounds as the British agents had operated in Norway under fake identities.

 The extent and gravity of art theft is little known to the general public. “Art theft and the trafficking of stolen works of art is a major criminal business, perhaps the largest in terms of financial value after the illegal trade in arms and drugs. The FBI currently values criminal income from art theft at $6-8 billion a year. The Art Loss Register – a private company that documents and helps trace stolen or lost artworks, antiques and collectables – has over 300,000 items listed in its database and adds a further 10,000 each year. The theft of artworks is commonplace, but it becomes a news item, and lodged in the public’s memory, when the works are by major artists or when they are taken from museums. The loss in these cases is shared and public, and interest may be piqued by the enormous value of the artworks and by details of exactly how they were taken – particularly if there are echoes of well-known films.” (Jennifer Mundy,  Lost Art). It is true that the cinema frequently glorifies the daring of art thieves. Macho art-heist films such as The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen), Entrapment (Sean Connery), Ocean’s 12 (Brad Pitt) and many more, revel the thrill of the cleverly orchestrated operation of removing a priceless item from the most securely guarded environments.


However, Hollywood perpetuates a flawed myth. Alastair Sooke of The Telegraph researched a far from glamorous, dark side of art theft: “pilfered art will accrue value on the black market. Typically, a stolen painting’s underworld currency will be between three and 10 per cent of its estimated legitimate value, as quoted in the media. (…) It could then be used as collateral, helping to finance drug deals, gun-running, tobacco trafficking, and other illicit activities. (…) “Since the introduction of money-laundering regulations, it has become unsafe for criminals to pay for their operations in cash,” says Dick Ellis, who set up the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard. “With its black-market value, stolen art can easily be carried across international borders.” Keep that in mind next time you cheer the art thief in your favourite heist movie!