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6 of History's Greatest Art Heists and Scams

People love art. In fact, some love it so much, they'll do anything they can to get their grubby hands on it. Here are six instances where the best of human artistry brought out the worst of human trickery.

1. When Greeks Lose Their Marbles

Since 1832, some of the greatest treasures of ancient Greek civilization have been residing in the British Museum. And the Greeks, who understandably consider themselves the rightful owners of things Greek, want their stuff back. The objects in question are the Elgin Marbles, so called because they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, and British ambassador to Constantinople.

Elgin claimed to have removed the friezes and sculptures because the Ottomans (who ruled Greece at the time) were neglecting them. Of course, critics are more than happy to tell you the good earl outright stole them. Whatever Elgin's motives, the workers who removed the sculptures did terrible, irreparable damage to the Parthenon. The marbles arrived in England between 1801 and 1805 to a mixture of awe and outrage. A profligate spender (earls just wanna have fun!), Elgin piled up huge debts and ended up selling the collection to Parliament in 1816. Since then, a cold war of sorts has simmered between the governments of England and Greece over the return of the sculptures. In fact, proponents of returning the marbles to Greece have removed Elgin's name and refer to them simply as the Parthenon Marbles.

2. "Just Judges" Just Disappeared

just-judges.jpgThe Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a 24 panel masterpiece by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, is considered one of the most important Christian paintings in history. One panel, however, known as the "Just Judges," has been missing since it was stolen from a cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent in 1934. Shortly after the theft, the archbishop received 13 ransom notes signed "D.U.A." demanding 1 million Belgian francs for the painting's safe return.

D.U.A. turned out to be a transposition of the initials of Arseen Van Damme (with the "V" unlatinized into a "U"), alias of Arséne Goedertier, an eccentric who allegedly got the idea from a detective novel. Since then, numerous theories about the theft and the whereabouts of the painting have circulated: It was stolen by the Knights Templar; or the painting contains a map to the Holy Grail; or it's buried in the coffin of Belgium's King Albert I; or Goedertier was working for a Nazi spy, who was ordered by Hitler to obtain it as the center piece of his new "Aryan religion." The theories and clues have tantalized sleuths for three-quarters of a century, but the painting's location still remains a mystery.

3. The Case of the Missing Munch

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The Scream, Edvard Munch's 1893 expressionist masterpiece depicting anxiety and despair, is one of the most famous paintings in the world. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who couldn't recognize the ghostly figure on a bridge under a yellow orange sky, with hands clasped over his (or her?) ears, mouth open in a shriek. And on Sunday, August 22, 2004, administrators at Oslo's Munch Museum were definitely given reason to let life imitate the art. In broad daylight, armed thieves barged into the museum, yanked The Scream and another famous Munch, Madonna, off the wall, then made a break for it. Police found only the getaway car and two empty frames. Understandably, Norwegians reacted with disbelief and outrage at the theft of two true national treasures, which wouldn't turn up until 2006.

But this wasn't the first time the painting had been purloined. There are actually four versions of The Scream. Another version was stolen in October 1994 from Oslo's National Gallery. That one turned up three months later.

Weird note: August 22 is a bad day for paintings. On that day in 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.

4. Pahk the Cah, Then Steal Some Aht

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On March 18, 1990, in what still ranks as the biggest art theft in U.S. history, two thieves made off with masterpieces worth—get this—over $300 million. The robbery occurred at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, where two men dressed as Boston cops pretended to respond to a disturbance. They cuffed the security guards, then helped themselves to 13 paintings, including works by Vermeer, Manet, and Rembrandt. While none of the paintings has yet been recovered, a theory has developed as to their whereabouts: the heist may have been masterminded by the Irish Republican Army, working in conjunction with Irish gangsters in Boston to ransom the paintings, then use the money to run guns to the IRA. Proponents of this theory say the paintings are hidden somewhere in Ireland, but IRA spokesmen vehemently deny this. Nevertheless, the FBI is said to be following this lead. Stay tuned.

5. The Disappearing Da Vinci

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On Wednesday, August 27, 2003, two men posing as tourists walked into Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. During the tour, they made off with a painting, Madonna with the Yarnwinder, a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci valued at about £30 million. The thieves were seen on camera casually heading for their vehicle, a Volkswagen Golf GTI (whose slogan, "Getaway Drivers Wanted," seems appropriate), with the incredibly valuable painting tucked under one arm. Over 500 years old, the painting had been in the possession of the family of the castle's owner, the duke of Buccleuch, since the 18th century. In fact, the Madonna was the center piece of the duke's art collection valued at over £400 million and including works by Rembrandt and Holbein. Despite the theft, the castle reopened to visitors days later.

In a 2007 Glasgow raid, officers recovered the painting and arrested four men "“ three from England and one from Scotland.

6. The Godfather of Fake

fake.jpgWhat made Elmyr de Hory infamous wasn't the sheer number of forgeries he sold. It was that they were damn good forgeries. For 30 years, de Hory sold forgeries of paintings by the world's greatest artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec. In fact, his forgeries were so good, so precise in every detail, that they fooled even the most experienced art buyers. So much so that the native Hungarian has even attracted his own cult following, who pay high prices for "authentic" de Hory fakes. Irony of ironies, the forger's forgeries are now being forged and sold by other forgers! Even more odd: today, legitimate museums host exhibitions of de Hory's works.

De Hory told his story in Fake!, a 1969 biography by Clifford Irving (who went on to forge a phony autobiography of Howard Hughes). But in the end the master forger wound up penniless (just like a real painter) and committed suicide in 1976 "“ although rumors persist that he faked that, too.

This story was originally published in Forbidden Knowledge.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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