It’s a crime caper entirely befitting the master of surrealism.

According to New York prosecutors, last summer Phivos Istavrioglou strolled into an Upper East Side gallery, popped a valuable Salvador Dali painting into a shopping bag and simply walked out past several guards in broad daylight.

Unfortunately for Phivos Istavrioglou he was also caught on CCTV, and by the time he returned to where he lived in Greece, security photos of his face were being circulated around the world.

cartel des don juan tenorio Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio by Salvador Dali


Feeling a sudden onset of guilt, Istavrioglou took Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio – worth around $150,000 (£98,300) – out of its frame and popped it in the post back to the gallery, hoping that would be the end of it.

No such luck. When it was intercepted at JFK airport, police dusted it for prints and found that it was covered in fingerprints that matched those of a man who had, on another occasion, stolen a juice bottle in a shoplifting spree at a New York grocery. That man was Phivos Istavrioglou.

An undercover policeman was then dispatched to Greece to lure the culprit back to Manhattan, which he did by posing as a gallery owner offering Istavrioglou a job. Instead of a new start, he was greeted at the other end with a charge of grand larceny theft.

With a keen appreciation of irony, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said in a statement: “It was almost surreal how this theft was committed. Today’s indictment brings us one step closer to bringing an international art caper to a close.”

This week 29-year-old Istavrioglou from Athens pleaded not guilty, and was released on bail of $100,000 (£65,335) pending a trial.

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  • The United States: February 1988

    18 paintings including two by Fra Angelico, were stolen from New York art dealer Colnaghi's. The thieves broke in through a skylight, a manourve that could have gone very wrong, sending the thieves flying down the stairwell. Once inside, the thieves trod on canvases and failed to choose the most valuable paintings, but still made off with enough to be worth $6 million. Only 14 of the works were recovered. PICTURE: <a href="Credit: Fra Angelico [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons" target="_hplink">Wikimedia </a>

  • Mexico: December 1985

    140 objects, including Maya and Aztec Gold, Mixtec and Zapotec sculptures, were stolen from Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve 1985. The alarms had not been working for three years, thieves simply removed the glass from the cases. PICTURE: <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec_ear_flares,_Art_Institute.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia</a>

  • The United Kingdom 2003

    Not all art thieves are financially motivated. Thieves who stole Van Gogh's The Fortification of Paris with Houses, Picasso's Poverty and Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape from the Whitworth gallery in Manchester hid the works behind a public toilet. A note pinned to the tube said they stole the paintings to highlight security gaps at the gallery. How public spirited of them. IMAGE: <a href="http://uploads4.wikipaintings.org/images/vincent-van-gogh/fortifications-of-paris-with-houses-1887(1).jpg!Large.jpg < wikipaintings" target="_hplink">Wikipaintings</a>

  • The United Kingdom: August 1961

    A rich American collector, Charles Wrightsman, bought Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and planned to take it to America with him. Due to public outrage, the government matched the sum ($392,000) and it was hung in the National Gallery. It was stolen three weeks later, and the thief demanded a ransom, which was not granted. The Duke was later deposited in the left-luggage office of New Street station in Birmingham. A 61-year-old retired truck driver confessed to the theft. IMAGE:<a href="Credit: Francisco de Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons" target="_hplink"> Wikimedia Commons</a> <strong>UPDATE:</strong> A previous version of this slide incorrectly stated that the artwork was still at large, when in fact the painting has been restored. We apologize for the error.

  • The United Kingdom, 2003

    Thieves overpowered the guide and chucked the painting the Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo Da Vinci out of the window, telling tourists "Don't worry love, we're the police. This is just practice". The painting was found at the offices of one of Scotland's most successful law firms. Several solicitors were arrested, some of whom were said to be scrutinizing a contract which would have allowed 'legal repatriation' of the painting. The painting was recovered and returned to the Buccleugh family. IMAGE: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_da_vinci,_madonna_dei_fusi_di_Drumlarimng_castle,_lost.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikipedia</a>

  • 2010 France

    A masked thief dressed in black stole five paintings from Paris's Musee d'Art Moderne, including Pablo Picasso's Le Pigeon aux Petits-Pois and La Pastorale by Henri Matisse. Collectively the paintings are worth about €100m. The CCTV system had failed, the intruder had trigged no alarms and the night watchmen hadn't noticed the break in until it was too late. The CCTV had been reported as broken, but hadn't been fixed adequately. IMAGE:<a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/63/Picasso_-_Le_pigeon_aux_petits_pois_1911.jpg" target="_hplink"> Wikimedia Commons</a>

  • Sweden: December 2000

    Thieves seized a Rembrandt self portrait and two Renoir paintings from the National Museum in Stockholm. One thief threatened an unarmed guard with a submachine gun while the other two grabbed paintings. They scattered nails on the floor to slow down pursuit and got away on a motorboat. The thieves went on to request $10 million per painting in ransoms through a lawyer who was then arrested in connection with the robbery. The paintings are still missing. IMAGE: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrant_Self-Portrait,_1660.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikipedia</a>

  • The United States: March 1990

    Thieves made off with $300 million worth of art works, including The Concert by Vermeer and works by Rembrandt and Manet. Two men in police uniforms turned up at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum claiming to be responding to a disturbance. Once let in, guards were handcuffed and locked in a cellar while the thieves went to work. Attempts to recover the paintings - for a $5 million reward - failed.

  • France 1911

    The most audacious art theft of all time, Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Lourve, walked out of work one day with the Mona Lisa under his coat. The theft remained undiscovered for most of the next day, as workers thought it was being photographed. Peruggia believed the Italian painting should be in Italy, and two years later tried to sell it to the Uffizi in Florence. IMAGE: PA

  • Oslo, Norway: August 2004

    The Scream is one of the most stolen paintings of all time, made worse because there are four different versions. Most recently, it was stolen from the Munch museum in Oslo, where it was uninsured because curators felt the painting was 'priceless'. There were no demands for ransom but the painting was recovered 2 years later. IMAGE: PA