The $20 Million Heist at the Biggest Party in the World
In 2006, thieves took advantage of the bustle of the Rio Carnival, stealing five major works of art from a museum and ending up on the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list.
As anyone who has ever watched a good art heist flick knows, the key is in the planning. First, you need to assemble a trustworthy team with a variety of useful skills. You need to choose your targets…and ensure they’re portable. Then, figure out how to gain entry to the building and the specific gallery where they live.
Most importantly, though, you need a good diversion, something that will deflect the attention of onlookers and mask your escape. Pierce Brosnan successfully tripped the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fire alarms in The Thomas Crown Affair, but maybe he should have taken his cue from a group of real-life thieves in the southern hemisphere.
On the afternoon of February 24, 2006, a group of thieves in Brazil decided to take advantage of the distraction provided by the thousands of dancing spectators who had flooded the streets to celebrate Carnival to rob the Museo Chácara do Céu in Rio de Janeiro. By the time the sequins had settled and the samba music died down, they had successfully absconded with five major works of art and nabbed themselves a coveted spot on the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list.
On the top of a hill in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, a modern mansion looks down on the surrounding beaches and teeming neighborhoods that make up the iconic image of the coastal city. The home was built by Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya, a French-born industrialist who solidified his fortune in Brazil.
In addition to making his mark on the economy of the country, Maya was also a passionate art collector. Over the course of his 74 years, the aristocratic industrialist amassed an impressive collection of modern masterpieces from the greats of Europe, as well as some of the best 19th-century Brazilian work. His passion for art extended to an impressive library with over 8,000 books, many of them rare finds.
At the end of his life, Maya created a foundation through which his home, including its custom furnishings and modern art collection, was turned into the Museo Chácara do Céu. Following his death in 1968, the doors of his home were opened to the public.
It was this modern mansion on the hill populated by Monets and Matisses, Dalís and Seurats that proved too appetizing for the team of four robbers. They chose a day in February 2006, in the heart of Carnival, to strike.
The crew eschewed the standards set by the majority of museum burglars—both real and fictional. First, they decided there was no need to wait for the cover of darkness; they hit their mark at 4 p.m. in the afternoon. And when they did, they decided to depart from the charming routine of cunning and civil con—they came armed and ready to use force.
The crew donned the disguise of patrons and even bought tickets to gain entry to the museum. Once inside, they declared their intent. The unarmed security guards were no match for the guns—and one grenade—of the thieves.
Unlucky museum visitors and employees who happened to be present were taken to the security office, where the guards were forced to disconnect the security alarms and cameras and to wipe all captured footage clean.
Then the thieves got to work. They had their eyes set on five pieces and, by all accounts, came to the job knowing exactly what they wanted—Matisse’s 1905 “Luxembourg Gardens,” Picasso’s 1956 “Dance,” and Monet’s “Marine” from 1880-1890 were some of the best examples of European modern art in Brazil.The fourth, a Salvador Dalí canvas from 1929 entitled “Two Balconies,” was the only Dalí that was on public display in South America at the time. In addition to the four paintings, they also filched a precious book of Pablo Neruda poems that Picasso had illustrated.
The stolen Dalí, in particular, led experts to believe that the heist was highly planned and targeted. “I think they knew what they wanted. This is a museum with plenty of things in it, and they went past everything else and went straight for what they wanted,” private curator Christina Penna told the Chicago Tribune.
While they ignored the rest of the masterpieces hanging on the walls, the Chicago Tribune reported that they robbed several of the tourists who happened to be visiting the museum, before attacking two security guards on their way out. They made their escape, blending into the revelry of Carnival, possibly aided by two additional crew members with a van at the ready.
It was a shocking blow to the Chácara do Céu and to the art community in Brazil and Latin America. Estimates of the loss ranged from $20 to $50 million.
While none of the works have ever been recovered, a few days later the BBC reported that the Matisse had popped up on an Internet auction site, asking price $13 million.
“Given the characteristics of the crime, the way the thieves acted, it may be a contract job done for an international crime ring,” Brazilian investigator Dueller Rocha told the BBC.
This explanation would make sense given the difficulty of selling stolen works on the black market, especially works that are as high profile as these.
The thieves were most likely working on behalf of a specific buyer or criminal organization. If not, they would have surely faced an unexpected wake-up call when they first tried to offload their loot and discovered how impossible it really would be.
In the days following the theft, Brazilian investigators were convinced the pieces were still in the country, hidden away somewhere. And maybe that’s where they remain to this day, stashed away somewhere the thieves thought would be secure.
More likely, though, they’re hanging on a secret wall in a mansion, a valued part of the private collection of a nefarious one-percenter. And just maybe this collector remains in Rio, where he gives a sly grin each year as the explosion of feathers and color and music of the costume-bedecked revelers pass through the streets.