From the stolen Amorsolo to other missing artworks: Why art theft is both an atrocity and a fascination

Some criminals do it for money but some, apparently, are also in it for bragging rights—and the theatrics of it all fascinate many.

The country woke up to a startling news on the morning of July 6, Saturday: a painting by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo was reported stolen from the Hofileña Museum in Silay, Negros Occidental. Even if you’re not an art lover, this news caught your attention for sure. Amorsolo is perhaps the biggest name in Philippine art history and to have one of his works stolen is shocking and unthinkable. 

In this era of CCTV cameras, our initial question most certainly was: How was such a heist pulled off? No question about it, the theft of a piece of immense cultural importance is considered an act of immense gravity. The question then is: why, despite the high risks, do people still do it?

“It all happened within seconds” 

The popular private museum’s CCTV records showed that the 12×18-inch painting, called “Mango Harvesters,” was stolen by at least two individuals from the museum’s second floor where it was on display along with other paintings and sketches. 

It is part of the collection of the late Ramon Hofileña, a known art connoisseur in Negros Occidental, earning him the title “Father of Heritage Conservation” in Silay. Hofileña, who died in 2021, converted their family’s art deco ancestral house into a private museum to display his collection of about 1,000 artworks. The house was declared a heritage house on April 6, 1993, by the National Historical Institute.

“I don’t care about the prices of the paintings,” said Rene Hofileña, the museum’s administrator and brother of deceased art collector, as quoted in an Inquirer report.

“Mango Harvesters” by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, 1936, was stolen from the Hofileña Museum in Silay, Negros Occidental. Security cameras showed the painting being taken by two visitors around 10 a.m. on July 3. Photo from the Leon Gallery website

“I just want to keep my promise to my brother to keep the museum going so the public can continue to enjoy his art collection,” he added, saying the incident was the first time an art piece has been stolen from a museum in Silay, a city often referred to as the “Paris of Negros” due to its lively arts scene and impressive collection of preserved heritage houses.

Hofileña said the museum’s security video recordings showed the painting was stolen by a middle-aged woman and a male companion about 10 am on July 3. They are suspected to be in cahoots with three other people. 

The suspects joined a tour of the museum, and when it ended, they were allowed to return to the second floor since the guide thought they were just going to take pictures and he had another batch of tourists coming in. Video footage from the CCTV camera showed the male companion of the middle-aged woman taking the Amorsolo off the wall and sliding it in her bag, Hofileña said.

The Hofileña Museum in Silay. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Another couple and their child were also in the room when the robbery took place. “They saw the man take the painting down and put it in the bag of the woman but did not say anything or let us know what happened,” Hofileña said.

To give you an idea of how much an Amorsolo could cost, Leon Gallery in Makati sold the artist’s “Mango Gatherers,” a painting described as thematically similar to the one stolen in Silay, at a 2018 auction for P46.72 million.

All five were wearing face masks, he added.“It all happened within seconds. The woman with the painting in her bag hurriedly walked out of the museum and down the road.”

He thinks the thieves must have been observing the museum operations for some time because they knew exactly what to get and when there was only one tour guide on schedule.

A piece of history

Mayor Joedith Gallego of Silay vowed to help in the search for the stolen painting. She announced a P25,000 cash reward for anyone who could give information that would lead to the arrest of the suspects and recovery of the stolen artwork, as per the Rappler article.

Meanwhile, Solomon Locsin, Negros Occidental Historical Council chair, urged the public to help recover “this important piece of Philippine art.” He explained that the painting was valuable because it was “one of the early mature works of Amorsolo” who painted it in 1936.

Ramon Hofileña, who died in 2021, converted their art deco ancestral house into a private museum to display his collection of around 1,000 artworks, including the now missing Amorsolo. Photo from

Hofileña said the thieves “obviously only came here for the Amorsolo,” as it was not the only important piece of work in the museum. It was, in fact, on display alongside works of other Filipino masters such as Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Juan Luna, as well as National Artists Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera and Ang Kiukok.

What makes an Amorsolo so valuable?

Referred to as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art,” the Paco-born painter was known for his luminous depiction of rural landscapes and his portraits. Already renowned during much of his life, his popularity grew even more after his death. He was the first National Artist of the Philippines, declared four days after he passed on in 1972.

Amorsolo’s fame is attributed in part to his glorification of Philippine culture and his rejection of Western ideals of beauty, but mostly for the “perfection of his brush stroke.” Throughout his career as a painter, he received numerous distinctions including a first prize at the New York’s World Fair for “Afternoon Meal of Rice Workers” (1929), a UNESCO gold medal of recognition (1959), the Rizal Pro-Patria Award (1961), the Araw ng Maynila award (1963), and the Gawad CCP para sa Sining from the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Several renowned local museums have his works in their collections, such as the Ayala Museum in Makati, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Lopez Museum, and the National Museum of the Philippines.

But his works have also transcended Philippine borders. Three Amorsolo paintings are displayed in the Vatican. One is hung at the Vatican Radio headquarters; and the other two are at the Propaganda Fide, a missionary group , as a symbol of the Philippines’ contribution to the spread of the Catholic faith in other countries. 

Leon Gallery in Makati sold Amorsolo’s similarly themed “Mango Gatherers” at a 2018 auction for P46.72 million. Photo from Leon Gallery

Amorsolo was a prolific painter. His paintings, sketches, and studies are believed to exceed 10,000 pieces

To give you an idea of how much an Amorsolo painting costs today, Leon Gallery in Makati sold the artist’s “Mango Gatherers,” a painting described as “thematically similar” to the one stolen in Silay, at a 2018 auction for P46.72 million.

From missing Rembrandts to the Marcoses’ alleged ill-gotten collection

The latest Amorsolo heist is by no means a rarity. It now joins the ranks of other high profile thefts in art history such as “Infante and Dog” by Diego Velasquez, “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer, “View of Auvers-sur-Oise” by Paul Cézanne, “Poppy Flowers” by Vincent van Gogh, “Madeleine Leaning on her Elbow with Flowers in her Hair by Pierre-Auguste Renoir,” and “Landscape with Cottages” and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” was stolen from Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum twice: first in 1977 (then recovered after a decade), and again in August 2010. It has yet to be found. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Even the world’s most famous painting, the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci was once stolen. It was lost to the world for two years, having been taken from the Louvre in Paris on August 21, 1911 and recovered in 1913. 

Art heists have also teased the imagination of other creatives, leading to films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, the Oceans films, and Entrapment. Meanwhile, at the heart of Donna Finch’s bestselling novel The Goldfinch, which also had a movie adaptation, is the robbery of the eponymous painting by Carel Fabritius.

The Philippines has also figured quite heavily in this controversial aspect of art, largely because of one family: the Marcoses. After the EDSA Revolution, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) unearthed evidence that the family amassed a vast collection of artworks worth millions of dollars, immensely disproportionate to their legal income, as per a report on The Missing Art Movement’s (TMAT) website

It is believed that among the Marcoses’ collection include works by revered masters such as Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet. Some have been recovered, but most have not. Those that have been recovered were found by the PCGG in Metro Manila, though some had to be confiscated from as far as Paris. Some are still under litigation here and New York, while some may have already been purchased by innocent buyers, the report added. 

“Adoration of the Magi” by Pieter Breughel the Younger is among the artworks recovered by the Presidential Commission on Good Government from the Marcoses’ collection. Photo from The Missing Art Movement

In 2022, the art world went abuzz as a missing Picasso may have been spotted in the home of Imelda Marcos. In footage released by the Marcos family, Bongbong Marcos was shown visiting his mother after winning the 2022 Presidential elections. Hung on the wall in her Makati home are multiple artworks, including what appears to be Picasso’s “Femme Couchée VI” (Reclining Woman VI)⁠—or possibly a replica of it⁠—above the sofa, as reported by Vera Files.

Art, as something so refined and sometimes obscure, ‘becomes more accessible through the game of thievery,’ according to an article on Oxford Student.

The Picasso is among the more than 200 works of art that Marcos and her husband, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., may have acquired with ill-gotten money while he was in power between 1965 and 1986. It is also one of a group of artworks that was seized by anti-corruption authorities in 2014. Many are now wondering if the work taken from the family nine years ago was a fake.

Imelda Marcos in her Makati home in June 2007. On the top right portion of the photo is what appears to be Picasso’s “Femme Couchée VI” (Reclining Woman VI)⁠—or possibly a replica. Photo by Getty Images

Some have suggested that the painting is indeed real, including Andres Bautista, a former PCGG chairperson. In an interview with Rappler, Bautista claimed that the Picasso painting that the PCGG had seized was “a fake, it was a tarpaulin so it’s still with them.”

To know more about the missing paintings that are allegedly with the Marcoses and those already recovered by the PCGG, you may browse this gallery on the TMAM website

Why do people steal art?

We can only surmise the motivations behind art thefts—perpetrators could be in it for the money, or maybe for “criminal prestige” or even as “bargaining chips for reducing prison sentences,” as per the Art Newspaper. An article on the Oxford Student, on the other hand, described art heists as “appealing,” saying that art, as something so refined and sometimes obscure, “becomes more accessible through the game of thievery.” The article added that as consumers of entertainment, we are “transfixed with the murder mystery-ness of it all.”

Besides the “theatrics” of an art heist, the article continued, the motivation of the thief and the perceived mocking of high-class institutions, art theft is so appealing because, as the French thief Vjeran Tomic who is also known as the “Spiderman of Paris,” said: “They are an act of the imagination, not just for the thief, but for us.”

Photos of the façade and the interior of the National Museum of the Philippines. Photos from the National Museum’s Facebook page

Regardless of motivations, however, works of immense cultural importance should never be allowed to languish in the private collections for the pleasure of a few individuals. Museums and the invaluable art works and cultural artifacts contained within are portals to the past and guideposts to what we hope would be a better future for all. They are pieces of history that help us learn from the past and museums act as “quasi-classrooms” that pass down knowledge for future generations. Art also has the capacity to bring communities together.

While we Pinoys love to say “Walang forever,” we can only hope that this is true this time around—for the lost Amorsolo and all the other missing paintings to not be lost forever and be found soon, for us and future generations to appreciate and learn from.

The new lifestyle.