Intriguing Art Heists

Picasso, who famously pilfered other artists’ ideas, is sometimes cited as saying, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” As well as looking at artistic borrowing, we’ll explore intriguing stories of art that has literally been stolen.

We’ll consider various kinds of theft, including burglary, wartime looting and cultural appropriation, unpacking some complicated issues in our discussion. For instance, items of Bill Reid jewellery were stolen in 2008 from UBC’s Museum of Anthropology—but who, in the first place, should own the Indigenous art, including totem poles and masks, on display there? What is the difference between ownership and stewardship? We’ll also take time to appreciate the art itself in the stories, learning about the style, technique and skill of the artists—the very elements that make their work so sought after by thieves.

A $60 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Identify a variety of art styles and modes of production
  • Describe how artists ‘borrowed’ techniques and ideas from one another
  • Discuss the shifting concept of repatriation in the art world
  • Explore the role of theft in establishing the value of an artwork

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Art thefts in Vancouver

We explore the local theft of Bill Reid jewellery from the Museum of Anthropology as a way to unpack the issues surrounding some of the more controversial pieces in the museum’s collection, including totem poles and masks. We examine the problems around ownership versus stewardship.

Week 2: Daring art heists

From the Mona Lisa to the Scream in Oslo, some art heists grabbed international headlines for the daring nature of the job. How these thefts are planned, carried out, and ultimately fail will be examined in detail using a variety of work in European collections.

Week 3: War looting

Nazi art looting was highlighted in the film The Monuments Men but it is far from the only example of wartime looting. The Iraq war in more recent times opened the door, quite literally, to art thieves who descended on the national museum in Tehran to pilfer its collection of ancient artifacts while the war was actually raging outside its doors. We’ll look at how these escapades were planned and ultimately foiled.

Week 4: Inside the life of a prolific art thief

Stephane Breitwieser is a prolific art thief and one we can learn much from about pulling off the perfect caper. Because his tastes ranged widely we can have an opportunity to investigate a variety of pieces from ancient ivories to medieval wall hangings.

Week 5: Inside ‘Scotland Yard’

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston was the site of one of the most brazen art thefts in history. We’ll examine art theft from the perspectives of the thieves and the detectives who relentlessly hunt them.

Week 6: Appropriating from other cultures

The British Museum in London was literally built upon the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Greek Acropolis in Athens. We’ll explore a series of claims made by institutions about stewardship and how restitution works.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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