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On December 22, 2000, a group of armed men orchestrated an elaborate and violent heist in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden. The thieves utilized a shocking combination of misdirection and the threat of direct violence to make off with three priceless masterpiece paintings.

Authorities recovered the paintings in 2005, but the case remains one of the most notorious unsolved art heists in recorded history. Here’s how criminals made off with nearly $45 million worth of one-of-a-kind art.

The Heist

A group of criminals initiated the heist by detonating car bombs at nearby hotels. Police were distracted by responding to the two explosions, giving the thieves a window of opportunity to slip into the Nationalmuseum and apprehend the guards. The armed men brandished weapons and threatened violence if the guards attempted to stop them.

After detaining the guards, the criminals stole three paintings. One was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The other two were paintings by Renoir, Conversation, and Young Parisian. Together, experts value the three works between $30 and $40 million.  

Cinematic Getaway

The men staged a dramatic escape after pilfering the paintings. Police responded to the break-in after realizing that the car bombings were a distraction. The art thieves tossed nails into the road to pop the police vehicles’ tires as they tried to pursue the getaway vehicle.

Their escape took a strange turn after the thieves were cornered near a waterway. The group hopped into a motorboat they had moored near the museum and escaped into Lake Malar. After their stunning getaway, the thieves went quiet for weeks, and police feared they would never recover the missing paintings.

Arrests

Alexander Petrov and Stefan Nordström, the masterminds behind the heist, directed a lawyer to deliver a ransom note to the authorities in Stockholm. The lawyer delivered the note in January 2001, which included the group’s demands for several million dollars in exchange for the safe return of the paintings.

The ransom note gave the police enough information to restart the criminal investigation. In July 2001, Swedish authorities arrested Petrov, Nordström, and three of their associates.

Recovering the Paintings

The thieves refused to cooperate with authorities and never told them where they hid the paintings. Swedish police recovered the first painting, Conversation, from an unrelated criminal group during a routine drug bust two months after the art thieves were arrested.

Four years later, in September 2005, the FBI arrested a Bulgarian criminal named Boris Kostov. Kostov gave the authorities the Young Parisian and told them that the missing Rembrandt was in Denmark. The FBI worked together with the Danish police to set up a sting operation and arrest the Copenhagen-based criminals who were trying to sell the stolen Rembrandt.