12 February 1994: Edvard Munch’s The Scream is stolen

The Scream, painted in 1893 by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, is one of the world’s most iconic works of art (Munch actually created four versions between 1893 and 1910). The haunting image of the skeletal figure clutching its head and wailing before the setting sun is famous for its depiction of despair. And it’s why on the morning of 12 February 1994, it was stolen.

The Winter Olympics were due to open in Lillehammer later that day. As part of a special cultural exhibition, the painting had been moved to a less secure spot in Norway’s National Art Museum in Oslo. While everybody was focusing on the Games, two thieves smashed a window, cut down the painting, and made off with their valuable prize – all in 50 seconds.

Over in London, the Metropolitan Police had earned itself a reputation for tracking down stolen paintings. It was to the British bobbies that the Norwegian authorities turned for help in getting their painting back.

Because The Scream was so famous, and everybody was looking for it, it was believed almost impossible that the thieves would be able to sell the painting. Instead, the gallery received a ransom demand for $1m, which it refused to pay.

Frustrated, the thieves agreed to sell the masterpiece to a pair of art dealers for £250,000 that May. The dodgy dealers, however, turned out to be undercover British police officers, and the thieves were arrested. The Scream was found undamaged in the southern seaside town of Aasgaarstrand, and returned to the gallery. Four men were convicted of the theft in January 1996.

It’s not hard to see why The Scream attracted and continues to attract thieves’ attention (another version was pinched in 2004). In May 2012, a pastel version from 1895 fetched $119.9m (£74m) at Sotheby’s in New York – a record at the time. The bidding lasted just 12 minutes.

Also on this day

12 February 1851: the Australian gold rush

On this day. in 1851 gold prospector Edward Hargraves discovered a grain of gold in New South Wales, and sparked Australia’s first gold rush. Read more here.