On May 31, 1983, two pieces of Renaissance-era metalwork vanished from the Louvre’s collections overnight.
Much about the theft remains a mystery. As Today24 News reports, officials at the Parisian museum have never clarified who carried the operation out or how the perpetrator managed to squirrel the artifacts away intact. But thanks to one quick-thinking appraiser, the armor itself has now been rediscovered and returned to its proper place in the museum’s halls, reports Agence France-Presse.
A military antiques expert was working to appraise an inheritance collection in Bordeaux when he spotted gold- and silver-encrusted body armor and a helmet that piqued his suspicion. He contacted police, who confirmed that the artifacts numbered among 100,000 stolen artworks listed on Treima, an online database of stolen fine art, according to Today24.
Local authorities are still investigating how the stolen works ended up in the Bordeaux family’s collections, reports Caroline Goldstein for Artnet News.
According to a Louvre statement quoted by CNN’s Jack Guy and Saskya Vandoorne, the theft “deeply troubled” museum officials, though the crime remained “little known to the general public.”
“I was certain we would see them reappear one day because they are such singular objects,” Philippe Malgouyres, the Louvre’s curator of heritage artworks, tells AFP. “But I could never have imagined that it would work out so well—that they would be in France and still together.”
Baroness Salomon de Rothschild, a member of the famous banking family, bequeathed the armor to the French state in 1922. Milanese metalworkers likely created the intricate pieces, which are valued at an estimated $600,000, between 1560 and 1580, per Artnet News.
“They are prestige weapons, made with virtuosity, sort of the equivalent of a luxury car today,” Malgouyres tells AFP. “In the 16th century, weapons became works of very luxurious art. Armor became an ornament that had nothing to do with its use.”
The body armor was designed to decorate one’s upper back and features the figure of a woman, as well as faces, wreaths and other patterns.
Thieves have stolen artifacts from the storied Paris museum’s collections before. In 1911, for instance, handyman Vincenzo Perugia made history when he snuck the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre—without an escape route or planned buyer—by hiding it beneath his clothes.
The crush of press coverage around the theft helped catapult Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait to worldwide fame.
As James Zug wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2011, Perugia realized shortly after the crime “that he had not pinched an old Italian painting from a decaying royal palace. He had unluckily stolen what had become, in a few short days, the world’s most famous painting.”
Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Louvre, tells AFP that the last time a work was stolen from the Louvre was in 1998, when a thief cut a landscape painting by 19th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot from its frame.
“We’re still looking for it,” Martinez adds.