After sunset on May 31, 1983, and before dawn the next morning, a showcase at the Louvre was broken into and two pieces of 16th-century Italian armor were stolen in one of the most mysterious heists in the museum’s history.
Nearly 40 years later, the two items — a ceremonial helmet and a breastplate — were identified in the private collection of a family in Bordeaux, in western France. The police are investigating how the items ended up in the family’s estate, and who was responsible for the theft.
“The Louvre is delighted that these two pieces of Renaissance armor have been found thanks to the work of investigators,” the museum said in a statement. It added that what happened on the night of May 31, 1983, remained “an enigma,” with few details known to the general public.
The museum did not respond to requests for more information about the circumstances around the theft, the identity of the family who had the armor, or what prompted the family to have their private art collection appraised.
In January, according to local news reports, the items turned up in Bordeaux. An auctioneer called on an expert in antiquities, who identified the items as the two that had been stolen from the Louvre in 1983, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported.
The two items, thought to have been made in Milan in the second half of the 16th century, will be put on display as soon as the museum reopens, the Louvre statement said. They were bequeathed to the Louvre, one of the most visited museums in the world, by the Rothschild family in 1922.
The museum said in its statement that the 1983 theft had “deeply troubled all the staff at the time.”
There have been several high-profile heists at the Louvre. Probably the most famous occurred during the summer of 1911, when a museum employee stole the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. The employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested two years later while trying to sell the painting in Florence, Italy, and the painting was returned to the museum.
“I had only to choose an opportune moment and a mere twist would put the picture in my hands,” he said in court in 1913. He described snatching it from the wall and slipping it under his blouse. “It was all done in a few seconds.” His motivation was to return the painting to his native Italy, he said.
Another high-profile theft took place in 1976, when three burglars broke into the Louvre at dawn and stole a 19th-century diamond-studded sword belonging to King Charles X of France from a showcase. The thieves climbed up a metal scaffolding and smashed windows on the second floor, breaking into the museum. And in 1990, a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, “Portrait of a Seated Woman,” was cut from its frame and stolen from a third-floor gallery.
Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime, said that it was not unusual for museum curators to keep quiet about thefts. “Museum curators thought that if they admitted a theft, they would be exposing a security flaw or inspiring other people to take action,” Dr. Thompson said. “But researchers in the last couple of decades have been saying, ‘Look, guys, you’re not going to get anything back if people don’t know it’s missing.’ So museums are rather reluctantly publicizing thefts more, which has resulted in a lot more recovery of things.”
One risk to publicizing thefts is that if thieves learn the authorities are on to them, they are more likely to destroy, deconstruct or melt stolen works to avoid detection, Dr. Thompson said. A small percentage of stolen art is found, although studies show that about 40 percent of art stolen from showcases in museums is returned, as those works tend to be more recognizable and their theft is usually noticed right away. When art is stolen from storage, it can take museum officials years to notice items are missing.