After sunset on May 31, 1983 and before dawn the following morning, a display case in the Louvre was broken into and two pieces of 16th century Italian armor were stolen in one of the most mysterious burglaries in the world. history of the museum.
Almost 40 years later, the two objects – a ceremonial helmet and a breastplate – were identified in the private collection of a family in Bordeaux, western France. Police are investigating how the items ended up on the family’s property and who is responsible for the theft.
“The Louvre is delighted that these two pieces of Renaissance armor have been found thanks to the work of investigators,” the museum said in a statement. He added that what happened on the night of May 31, 1983 remained “an enigma”, with few details known to the general public.
The museum did not respond to requests for additional information about the circumstances of the theft, the identity of the family who had the armor, or what prompted the family to have their private art collection valued.
In January, according to local information, the articles ended up in Bordeaux. An auctioneer brought in an antiques expert, who identified the items as the two that had been stolen from the Louvre in 1983, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported.
The two objects, which would have been made in Milan in the second half of the 16th century, will be exhibited as soon as the museum reopens, according to the Louvre press release. They were bequeathed to the Louvre, one of the most visited museums in the world, by the Rothschild family in 1922.
The museum said in its statement that the 1983 flight had “deeply troubled all staff at the time.”
There have been several high-profile heists at the Louvre. Probably the most famous took place in the summer of 1911, when a museum employee stole the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. The employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested two years later while trying to sell the painting in Florence, Italy, and the painting was returned to the museum.
“I just had to pick an opportune moment and a simple twist would put the image in my hands,” he said in court in 1913. He described ripping it off the wall and slipping it under her blouse. “Everything was done in seconds.” His motivation was to return the painting to his native Italy, he said.
Another high-profile theft took place in 1976, when three burglars broke into the Louvre at dawn and stole a 19th-century diamond-set sword belonging to King Charles X of France from a display case. Thieves climbed on metal scaffolding and smashed windows on the second floor, breaking into the museum. And in 1990, a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, “Portrait of a seated woman”, was cut out from its frame and stolen from a gallery on the third floor.
Erin Thompson, associate professor of artistic crime, said it’s not unusual for museum curators to be silent about thefts. “Museum curators believed that if they admitted theft, they would expose a security breach or inspire others to take action,” Dr Thompson said. “But researchers over the past two decades have said, ‘Look, guys, you won’t get anything in return if people don’t know it’s missing.’ So museums are more reluctant to advertise thefts, which has resulted in a much larger recovery of things. “
One of the risks of advertising thefts is that if thieves learn that authorities are on them, they are more likely to destroy, deconstruct or melt stolen artwork to avoid detection, Dr Thompson said. A small percentage of stolen works of art are found, although studies show that around 40% of works of art stolen from museum display cases are returned, as these works tend to be more recognizable and their theft is usually noticed immediately. When works of art are stolen from warehouses, museum officials can take years to notice that items are missing.