Just three days before Christmas Day 2000, there was an elaborate museum robbery at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden. What happened is true, even if it sounds like the plot of a hit Hollywood movie.
There are lots of movies that have been made, both fiction and nonfiction, about individuals or groups of people that have robbed banks. Bank robbers have even become heroes for being brave and sort of like Robin Hood figures that drive our fantasy of danger and getting rich. However, the robbery that took place in December 2000 in Stockholm shows that museum heists can be just as wild as bank heists.
One big difference between robbing a bank and robbing a museum is that once you have the cash you can hide it, spend it, move it, and really just do anything including buying a plane ticket to somewhere far from the scene of the crime. Robbing a museum is a totally different game though.
Yes, one piece of art could be worth millions of dollars. But how do you safely transport it? How do you hide it? How do you sell it to get your hands on some cash? It all seems a bit complicated to successfully steal a piece of art from a museum. Even if the heist is successful, what happens next?
The Big Heist of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm
Just before 5 pm on December 22, 2000, when the museum was about to close, two car bombs went off near the Nationalmuseum in the capital city of Stockholm, Sweden. As police and museum security guards were distracted, three men, one armed with a submachine gun and two with pistols, entered the museum.
They grabbed three paintings: Renoir‘s Young Parisian and Conversation and Rembrandt’s Self Portrait. The armed robbers ran out of the museum and aimed their weapons at anyone who stood in their way. They then jumped into a waiting speedboat in a waterway next to the museum and sped off before police could even realize that a crime had taken place. The thieves got away having successfully stolen $55 million worth of art in just a few minutes.
The authorities didn’t have to wait long to hear from the thieves since just a few weeks later, in January 2001, a lawyer, who said he represented the thieves, gave the police a ransom note asking for several million Swedish kronor. The ransom note had pictures of the stolen paintings to prove that these were the real criminals who stole them. The police ignored the ransom note and continued to investigate the case.
Before the end of the month, the lawyer and two men, Alexander Petrov and Stefan Nordström, were arrested, and by July they were convicted and jailed. Even though the two masterminds had been arrested they had not given the police any information, and the three paintings remained missing. In a lucky break, the police raided a house during a drug investigation, and inside the house, they found Renoir’s Conversation. Then, for four years, the case went cold while the two other paintings remained missing.
A Long Chase
Far from Sweden across the ocean in Los Angeles, California there was a breakthrough in the case. The FBI was investigating some Bulgarian gangsters, and when they finally arrested one of the mafia bosses, he gave up information regarding one of the paintings when he was interrogated.
He thought he could make a good deal with the FBI if he helped them with other unsolved investigations. This was a complete shock especially since the mob boss claimed one of the paintings was smuggled through LAX and was in Los Angeles. Renoir’s Young Parisian was recovered with minimal damage. The Bulgarian mobsters also gave the FBI information that led them to the third and final missing painting.
At the time, four years had passed, and the remaining criminals were desperate to sell the painting to get it off their hands. The painting is valued at about $42 million, but it was being sold for just $100,000. The FBI coordinated with the Danish police to set up an undercover sting in Copenhagen to recover the painting. Everything went according to plan, and Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, was safely recovered; the last remaining criminals were thrown in jail.
We’ve all been in a museum and seen how valuable some of the items are and maybe have even thought about doing a daring heist like what was done in Stockholm. However, as successful as the heist was, it ended up failing as the paintings were returned to the museum and the people involved all went to jail for their crime of stealing art.