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Still Missing: The New Year’s Eve Heist

March 4, 2024
An impressionist landscape with houses and rolling green hills.

View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne

This is now the third entry in my ongoing series, which I call Still Missing, where I discuss some of the most interesting unsolved art thefts. While the 1934 Just Judges theft was certainly interesting to look into, here’s something a little more recent: the heist that took place on New Year’s Eve at an Oxford University museum.

The Ashmolean Museum is Britain’s oldest museum. It has been open for over 340 years, often welcoming close to a million visitors annually. At the dawn of the new millennium, it was the scene of a daring robbery. At midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, an unknown thief entered the museum using the nearby fireworks display as cover. Like the Skylight Caper perpetrators, they gained access to the roof. They entered through a skylight, descended into the galleries, and used a smoke bomb to obscure themself from the CCTV cameras while making their way to View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne. The painting was created around 1880, showing the northern French town where Cézanne lived at the time. The perpetrator pulled a scalpel from a bag and cut the painting out of its frame. If that wasn’t enough, he also removed the now empty frame from the wall and smashed it on the floor. They then left the building, disappearing into the crowds outside, who had assembled in the street to view the New Year’s fireworks. The entire job took around 10 minutes.

Seeing the smoke and hearing the museum’s alarm going off, the security guards assumed it was a fire. When police and firefighters arrived, the smoke disappeared, revealing the crime scene. The Cézanne was the only work stolen that night. It had been the only Cézanne kept by the Ashmolean at the time, leading investigators to conclude that the thief had specifically chosen that painting to steal. At the time of the incident, the Ashmolean stated the painting was likely worth around £3 million. Some theorized that recent films like Entrapment and The Thomas Crown Affair may have inspired the theft. Some police officers called the incident “​​a very clever ploy” and “very professional”.

Authorities were rather confident that the Cézanne would be tracked down soon. Others, like Thames Valley Police spokesman Duncan McGraw, were more ambiguous in their predictions: “It could be tomorrow, or it could be in 20 years.” Police initially believed they had tracked the painting down to a pub in the West Midlands, only to find that it was a copy recently made by the landlord after watching the theft’s news coverage.