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  /  Art   /  The painting “The Scream” was stolen the same day as the opening of the 1994 Olympics; the thieves left a note saying “thanks for the poor security”

The painting “The Scream” was stolen the same day as the opening of the 1994 Olympics; the thieves left a note saying “thanks for the poor security”

The Scream is the popular name given to a composition created by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch in 1893. The original German title given by Munch to his work was Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature), and the Norwegian title is Skrik (Shriek). The agonised face in the painting has become one of the most iconic images of art, seen as symbolising the anxiety of the human condition.

Munch recalled that he had been out for a walk at sunset when suddenly the setting sunlight turned the clouds “a blood red“. He sensed an “infinite scream passing through nature”. Scholars have located the spot to a fjord overlooking Oslo, and have suggested other explanations for the unnaturally orange sky, ranging from the effects of a volcanic eruption to a psychological reaction by Munch to his sister’s commitment at a nearby lunatic asylum.

 

1994 theft

On 12 February 1994, the same day as the opening of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, two men broke into the National Gallery, Oslo, and stole its version of The Scream, leaving a note reading “Thanks for the poor security”. The painting had been moved down to a second-story gallery as part of the Olympic festivities. After the gallery refused to pay a ransom demand of US$1 million in March 1994, Norwegian police set up a sting operation with assistance from the British police (SO10) and the Getty Museum and the painting was recovered undamaged on 7 May 1994. In January 1996, four men were convicted in connection with the theft, including Pål Enger, who had been convicted of stealing Munch’s Vampire in 1988. They were released on appeal on legal grounds: the British agents involved in the sting operation had entered Norway under false identities.

2004 theft

The 1910 version of The Scream was stolen on 22 August 2004, during the daylight hours, when masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum in Oslo and stole it and Munch’s MadonnaA bystander photographed the robbers as they escaped to their car with the artwork. On 8 April 2005, Norwegian police arrested a suspect in connection with the theft, but the paintings remained missing and it was rumored that they had been burned by the thieves to destroy evidence. On 1 June 2005, with four suspects already in custody in connection with the crime, the city government of Oslo offered a reward of 2 million Norwegian krone (roughly US$313,500 or €231,200) for information that could help locate the paintings. Although the paintings remained missing, six men went on trial in early 2006, variously charged with either helping to plan or participating in the robbery. Three of the men were convicted and sentenced to between four and eight years in prison in May 2006, and two of the convicted, Bjørn Hoen and Petter Tharaldsen, were also ordered to pay compensation of 750 million kroner (roughly US$117.6 million or €86.7 million) to the City of Oslo. The Munch Museum was closed for ten months for a security overhaul.

On 31 August 2006, Norwegian police announced that a police operation had recovered both The Scream and Madonna, but did not reveal detailed circumstances of the recovery. The paintings were said to be in a better-than-expected condition. “We are 100 percent certain they are the originals,” police chief Iver Stensrud told a news conference. “The damage was much less than feared.” Munch Museum director Ingebjørg Ydstie confirmed the condition of the paintings, saying it was much better than expected and that the damage could be repaired. The Scream had moisture damage on the lower left corner, while Madonna suffered several tears on the right side of the painting as well as two holes in Madonna’s arm. Before repairs and restoration began, the paintings were put on public display by the Munch Museum beginning 27 September 2006. During the five-day exhibition, 5,500 people viewed the damaged paintings. The conserved works went back on display on 23 May 2008, when the exhibition “Scream and Madonna — Revisited” at the Munch Museum in Oslo displayed the paintings together. Some damage to The Scream may prove impossible to repair, but the overall integrity of the work has not been compromised.

 

by Amin Brodie