Gone In (Under) 60 Seconds: The 1994 theft of 'The Scream'

Gone In (Under) 60 Seconds: The 1994 theft of 'The Scream'

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian Expressionist painter who created the iconic painting, 'The Scream' in 1893. The work was inspired by an experience where Munch felt overwhelmed by "the infinite scream of nature." Today, we'll learn about the theft of The Scream from the National Museum of Norway.
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Edvard Munch was a Norwegian Expressionist painter who created the iconic painting, 'The Scream' in 1893. The work was inspired by an experience where Munch felt overwhelmed by "the infinite scream of nature." The picture features a figure with an agonized expression against a backdrop of turbulent colours and swirling lines Munch made several versions of 'The Scream'; two were painted and two created in pastels. He also made a lithograph stone from which several prints still survive. The Munch Museum in Oslo holds painted and pastel versions, while the National Museum of Norway (also in Oslo) has the other painted edition. A private collector owns the second pastel version. 'The Scream' has become a symbol of modern anxiety and is widely interpreted in popular culture. It has inspired many contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol and was even the inspiration for the Ghostface mask used in the Scream films.

This article is about the theft of 'The Scream' from the National Museum of Norway (below). It has a small pencil inscription in Munch's hand saying, "Kan kun være malet af en gal Mand!" ("could only have been painted by a madman". 

 "Thousand thanks for the bad security!"

February 12 1994, was a momentous day in Norway, as it marked the opening day of that year's Winter Olympics, which was hosted in the town of Lillehammer. However, this date would have further significance for the National Museum of Norway staff in Oslo. 
At 6:30 am, the museum's alarm alerted the security guard to a disturbance. The police were immediately summoned and arrived in minutes; however, it was too late to prevent the brazen theft of 'The Scream'. The security camera (frame below) revealed the thieves had infiltrated the museum by climbing a ladder and smashing a window. They used wire cutters to detach the painting from the wall before making a hasty exit 50 seconds later. They left a taunting message in the gallery; "A thousand thanks for the bad security!" The BBC reported that the museum moved the painting from the first floor to a less secure position on the ground floor. 
 Two men breaking into the National Gallery, Oslo, to steal the gallery's version (1893 tempera on cardboard) of The Scream, February 1994

The Aftermath Of The Theft

A legitimate sale of 'The Scream' would command a considerable sum (Sotheby's sold a pastel version of 'The Scream' for $119,922,600 in 2012, below). However, a stolen piece would be very hard to sell as it would be so well known. Museum director Knut Berg told the press, 
"It is impossible to estimate the value of the painting. But it is Norway's most valuable painting, Munch's most renowned and impossible to sell."
 1895, pastel on cardboard. It was sold for nearly US$120 million at Sotheby's in 2012, and is in the private collection of Leon Black.
The theft caused a stir in Norway, and there was much speculation about the motivation behind the robbery. Was it a coincidence it was on the same day as the Winter Olympics opening ceremony? Was the aim to create publicity for a cause? A radical anti-abortion group hinted that the painting could be recovered if a propaganda film was transmitted on national television. The police were doubtful about their claims, which were found to be fabricated. In March, the gallery received a $1,000,000 ransom request for the return of the painting. They were unsure about the claim's legitimacy, so they didn't pay.

What Happened To The Thieves?

The painting was recovered in May 1994, in a joint sting operation by Norwegian and British police, coincidentally in Åsgårdstrand, a coastal town where Munch spent his summersIn January 1996, four men were sentenced in connection with the theft, but due to a legal loophole (the British police entered Norway under false identities), three of them were able to evade prison, but the fourth man, Pål Enger was locked up for six and a half years. Mr Enger had previously served four years in jail for stealing 'Love and Pain' (also known as 'Vampire', below), another Munch masterpiece in the 1980s. After his release from prison, Mr Enger began painting and exhibiting his own abstract pieces and also acquired his first legitimate Munch - an unsigned lithograph at a 2001 auction. 

 Love and Pain (1895) by Edvard Munch

Interested In Learning More? 

You may enjoy reading these articles for further information about the 1994 theft of The Scream: The AthleticFuture Learn and History.com
Or read about the infamous theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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