In this 4-part lecture series, step into the hidden world of art crime, examining four dramatic art heists that changed history.
At the Colnaghi Gallery in Manhattan, art thieves smashed a skylight and rappelled down four stories, snatching 19 paintings worth nearly $6 million. In Stockholm, people in balaclavas leapt out of a car, rushed into an open museum, and took off on a speedboat with a Rembrandt. You’ve seen the movies. But real-life art heists are, in a way, even wilder—full of capers, hijinks, and heists involving larger-than-life characters. In this course, join bestselling author and art historian Noah Charney for an inside look at the world of international art crime—one of the highest grossing criminal trades worldwide. We’ll zoom in on four cases and piece together how they were carried out, including the multiple thefts of the Ghent Altarpiece and the heist that made the Mona Lisa famous. By the end of this course, you’ll not only have an in-depth knowledge of how different heists have been pulled off, but also a deeper understanding of art markets, looting, and the cultural value of art.
Syllabus at a Glance
This course includes four total sessions, each lasting for 1.5 hours on four Tuesdays beginning November 7.
Session 1 (Tuesday, 11/7, 4:00–5:30 PM ET) | The Most Desired Object in History: The Many Thefts of The Ghent Altarpiece
Our first session will cover the story of arguably the most influential painting ever made, and the most frequently stolen—the object of 13 different crimes over 600 years. The Ghent Altarpiece is an ideal lens through which to discuss all the bad things that can happen to good art.
Session 2 (Tuesday, 11/14, 4:00–5:30 PM ET) | Zodiac Heists: Missing Art in a Geopolitical Context
For a period of a decade in the 2000s, Chinese Imperial art was disappearing from European museums. What connected the stolen works was the fact that almost all of them had originally been stolen from China, mostly during the Opium Wars. Were these treasures being taken back by the Chinese? This case study will kick off our discussion of art markets, the value of art (financial and cultural) and what happens to it after it’s stolen. We'll be joined by special guest: Art Detective Arthur Brand.
Session 3 (Tuesday, 11/21, 4:00–5:30 PM ET) | Stealing the World’s Most Expensive Painting: The 1876 Gainsborough Heist
The majority of art crime involves organized crime groups, which results in stolen and looted art funding other crimes that we tend to take more seriously, including the drug and arms trades. Beginning with a key case study, the 1876 theft of a Gainsborough painting by the “Napoleon of Crime” (and inspiration for Sherlock’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty), this lecture will look at the involvement of organized crime in art.
Session 4 (Tuesday, 11/28, 4:00–5:30 PM ET) | When Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa: Picasso and the World’s Most Famous Theft
The focus of the last lecture in this series will be on a pair of thefts from the Louvre—one of them the most famous theft of any object in history. In 1911, the disappearance of the Mona Lisa catapulted the painting to fame. But the investigation was going nowhere when Pablo Picasso was arrested on suspicion of involvement. This final lecture looks at Picasso’s theft from the Louvre, the Mona Lisa theft and issues of fame, the media, and fiction as they interact with real-life art heists.
Students who wish to dive deeper into the course material will be given optional reading, watching, and listening material to explore outside of class.
There are no required materials for this course! However, students who are interested in doing some related reading prior to class can check out Noah's books, linked below:
The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon, 2018)
Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs, 2011)
This course is available at three ticket prices. This tiered pricing model is designed to increase access for a wider range of students as well as to support our instructors. In addition to tiered tickets, we offer a limited number of no-pay spots for students who would not otherwise be able to take this course. No-pay spots are selected via a randomized drawing two weeks before each section begins. For more information and to apply for a no-pay spot, please click here. To learn more about our pricing model and randomized selection process for no-pay spots, please visit our FAQ page.
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Atlas Obscura Online Courses
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Once registered, you’ll receive a confirmation email from Eventbrite that will provide access to each class meeting. Please save the confirmation email as you’ll use it to access all sessions of your course via Zoom.
Dr. Noah Charney is the internationally best-selling author of more than a dozen books, translated into fourteen languages, including The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art, which was nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, and Museum of Lost Art, which was the finalist for the 2018 Digital Book World Award. He is a professor of art history specializing in art crime, and has taught for Yale University, Brown University, American University of Rome, and University of Ljubljana. He is founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art and teaches on their annual summer-long postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. He writes regularly for dozens of major magazines and newspapers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Observer, and The Art Newspaper. His latest books on art have been published by Rowman & Littlefield and include The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock and Rivalry Shaped the Art World, which was an Amazon #1 best-seller in its category, and in 2022 he presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary, China’s Stolen Treaures. He lives in Slovenia with his wife, children and their hairless dog, Hubert van Eyck (believe it or not), and sometimes leads Atlas Obscura trips!
This lecture series is designed so students can participate live or watch a recording of each session, after it airs, at a time that is convenient for them. Sessions will take place live over Zoom, with dedicated Q&A segments for students to ask questions via video or chat. Within 72 hours after each session meets, students will receive access to a recording of the live session, which they can watch for up to two weeks after the course concludes.
Instructors may use Google Classroom to communicate with students outside of class. While students aren’t required to use Google Classroom, instructors may use this platform to post resources, discussion questions, or assignments. This platform also offers a space for students to connect with one another about course material between sessions.
We provide closed captioning for all of our courses and can share transcripts upon request. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, requests, or accessibility needs.
Tue, Nov 7, 20234:00 p.m.–5:30 p.m.$80