Now you see it... 5 most scandalous thefts of iconic London artworks

It may be London Art Fair, but what about art theft, which costs the UK £300m a year?

London is home to some of the world’s most treasured pieces of art. The astonishing collections in our world-leading galleries are worth billions of pounds, and many of the most valuable pieces are on public display.

But despite being such a tantalising target for art thieves, London has never seen a truly audacious art heist on the scale which other countries’ galleries have seen. In Paris, for example, a solitary thief smashed his way into the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 and escaped with a clutch of paintings including works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Modigliani.

And in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh museum has been the target of repeated attempts to steal the Dutch artist’s works.

Nonetheless, thefts of artworks cost the UK an estimated £300m a year, making the trade the second most lucrative illegal activity for organised criminals after drug dealing.

So which arty crimes have left London reeling? We take a look at some of the art thefts that have shocked the capital over the years.

1. Damien Hirst’s ‘Spot’ artworks

Damien Hirst Spot Painting

The most recent high-profile art theft took place in early December at the end of last year, when a lone thief broke into the Exhibitionist gallery in Notting Hill and made off with two Damien Hirst artworks worth a total of £33,000.  

The independent gallery had only had the signed artworks on display for four days before the theft. Police believe the two artworks, a large Spot painting made in 2005 called Pyronin Y, and a smaller 2008 Spot painting, Oleoylsarcosine, were specifically targeted.

Damien Hirst is the world’s richest artist with an estimated wealth of £1bn, and his Spot paintings are among the most recognisable works in his oeuvre. Police are appealing for information.

2. Barbara Hepworth’s Two Forms sculpture

Barbara Hepworth sculpture

Barbara Hepworth’s mighty bronze sculpture, Two Forms (Divided Circle), stood in a gladed area of Dulwich Park for more than 40 years, until December 2011.

On the morning of 20 December, park workers were confronted with an empty plinth. The theft of the two-metre high sculpture would have been a major effort, with an industrial saw necessary to cut through supports.

Sale of such a large and recognisable work on the black market would be highly unlikely. Southwark Council has offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the metal thieves, but it is likely to have been taken for its copper. Had it been melted down for scrap, it may have only netted the thieves £750.

3. Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

Goya Stolen

In 1961 a retired London bus driver, Kempton Bunton, enraged at having to pay his BBC television licence fee, made it into the British art history books when he broke into the National Gallery and stole Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

Bunton had walked into the gallery, prised open a lavatory window, and then returned in the early hours of the next morning, climbed in through the window, taken the picture down, and left the same way he had come in.  

The police initially expected a professional art thief to be behind the theft, but days later, Bunton sent a letter to Reuters news agency demanding £140,000 (the value of the painting), be given to a charity to help pensioners pay for their television licences.

Bunton was among the suspects, but was discounted due to his age and weight of 17 stone.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Bunton voluntarily returned the painting through the left luggage facility at a train station. Six weeks later he handed himself in. In 2012 it came to light that Bunton’s son, John, may have conducted the actual theft and passed the painting on to his father.

The theft entered popular culture and is seen in 1962 James Bond film Dr. No, where it is seen hanging in Dr. No’s island lair.

4. Syd Barrett’s self-portrait.

Syd Barrett Self Portrait

Syd Barrett Self Portrait. photo: Brain Damage - Pink Floyd news resource

Founding member and original singer of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, was a student at Camberwell School of Art when he formed the progressive rock group with old friend Roger Waters. Barrett was a gifted painter, but would often burn his works after completing them.

A self-portrait done in the 1960s survived meeting a fiery end, and was included in a 2011 exhibition of the frontman’s art and letters at the Generation Gallery in Shoreditch.

During the short exhibition, the painting was stolen during a busy weekend period. It belonged to Barrett’s former girlfriend, and a reward of £2,000 was offered for its safe return.

After the appeal, the artwork was returned to the gallery by post.

5. Banksy’s Poundland mural – Slave Labour

Banksy Poundland

Camera-shy street artist Banksy’s work Slave Labour caused controversy in February 2013, when just days after appearing on a wall outside Poundland in Wood Green in north London, the painting, and indeed, the section of the wall it had been painted on disappeared overnight.

Just a few days later, the mural had crossed the Atlantic and was up for sale at a contemporary art auction in Florida, where it was expected to fetch up to £500,000.

Despite the first bids on the artwork having already been made, the auction was stopped at the 11th hour over claims it was stolen, and an outcry from the authorities at Haringey Council.

However, the painting was eventually sold at another auction in Covent Garden, where Poundland was listed as the owner. Local media reported that the leaseholders were extorted by gangs who said they would damage the mural and had to protect it.

It has been suggested that Banksy’s decision to paint the mural on the wall of Poundland related to a 2010 incident in which the discount retailer launched an inquiry after it emerged that a seven-year-old boy had been working 100-hour weeks in an Indian sweatshop producing goods for the store. Now that is a crime.

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