The French artist Paul Cezanne never got around to signing or dating his landscape of the town of Auvers-su-Oise. Because of this, many art historians believe that the work was left unfinished. But that didn’t make it any less attractive to the thieves who struck on the eve of the Millennium. While the rest of Oxford was watching a fireworks display, the criminal – or criminals – broke into the city’s Ashmolean Museum and made off with the painting.
As Britain woke up from its big party the night before, news of the heist spread fast. It was revealed that the thief broke in through a skylight and used a rope to rappel down to the gallery floor. They then used a smoke bomb to obstruct the security cameras and then set off the fire alarm. All went to plan: the museum’s security guards waited for the fire brigade to arrive, giving the thief enough time to find the Cezanne, take it off the walls and then leave the museum the way he came in. The whole crime took less than ten minutes to carry out.
Police were soon on the scene. Since the same gallery was home to several other valuable works, investigators concluded that the thief stole the painting to order, making the task of recovering it even more difficult. So far, no trace has been found, either of the thief or of View of Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s believed that the painting would now be worth in excess of $10 million, making it one of the most valuable works of art ever stolen in Britain. Partly as a result of this single crime, the UK government passed a new law, deeming thefts of items deemed part of the British “national heritage” to be worthy of longer prison sentences than normal thefts.