This Day in History (12-Feb- 1994) : Art thieves snatch world’s best-known paintings Scream

On 12-Feb-1994, thieves stole one of the world’s best-known paintings from a gallery in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Two men took just 50 seconds to climb a ladder, smash through a window of the National Art Museum in Oslo and cut The Scream, by Edvard Munch, from the wall with wire cutters. The cutters were left behind along with a short ladder as the men fled with the painting. The entire incident was filmed by security cameras. The painting was priceless and Munch’s most renowned one. Art experts believed that it would be impossible for thieves to sell the Scream on the open market  It was believed to have been uninsured. The painting was in the gallery as the highlight of a Norwegian Culture Festival staged in connection with the Winter Olympics which was starting that day in Lillehammer. There was a speculation that it may have some connection with the Games, possibly as a publicity stunt by campaigners. The museum faced a strong criticism over its security after it was revealed that the masterpiece had been moved from the more secure first floor to the ground floor for the exhibition.

Initially, a radical Norwegian anti-abortion group claimed responsibility for the theft, but police remained sceptical. In March 1994, the gallery received a £700,000 ($1m) ransom demand for the painting. The gallery board refused to pay, unsure that the demand was genuine. Norwegian police contacted London shortly after the theft and the Norwegians worked closely with Chief Inspector John Butler, head of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques squad.  In May 1994, Norwegian and British police mounted an undercover sting which uncovered the painting, unharmed, in the seaside town outside Oslo where Edvard Munch painted many of his most famous paintings. Two Metropolitan Police officers fooled the thieves by pretending they would buy the painting for £250,000.

In January 1996, four men were convicted and sentenced in connection with the theft. One of the two thieves who carried out the raid, Paal Enger, is now a legitimate art buyer, acquiring his first Munch – an unsigned lithograph – at auction in 2001.