In 1632 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn created an oil painting that was to lead a fairly docile life for around 350 years, before being involved in a spate of four thefts from the same gallery over a 17 year period, resulting in its unfortunate modern day nickname, The Takeaway Rembrandt. The oil painting at the heart of the matter is his Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, whose subject was a Dutch Golden Age engraver and the son of Dutch Realist painter Jacob de Gheyn II.

Part of the reason that work seems to have been stolen so often is due to the size of the painting. At just 12 inches by 10 inches, the work is smaller than most of the other portraits from Rembrandt’s oeuvre and this is because it was originally created as half of a pair of portrait pendants. The other portrait is of de Gheyn’s friend, the Dutch poet and composer Maurits Huygens, and shows him wearing the same white collar and black doublets and facing the opposite direction.

Huygens and de Gheyn had commissioned the 26 year old Rembrandt to paint them in identical formats, and he did so upon the same oak panel. Inscriptions on the back of the panels reveal that the friends had agreed that when one of them died, the other one would receive the oil on oak panel portrait, so that their images could be reunited even in death. Kind of like a BFF necklace for men in the middle ages. The paintings were reunited less than a decade later when De Gheyn passed away in 1641, and unfortunately Huygens followed him less than a year later.

The Portrait of Maurits Huygens is currently held at the Hamburger Kunsthalle art museum in Hamburg, Germany, where it seems to have remained securely since it arrived there in 1899. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, which was bequeathed to Dulwich College in London in 1811. The work has been displayed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from where it has been stolen on no less than four separate occasions since 1966.

The first theft in 1966 involved thieves breaking into the gallery and removing a total of nine artworks, including Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III and two other Rembrandts as well as some sketches by Peter Paul Rubens. The Rembrandts were later discovered in a bush in London’s Streatham Common with the rest of the works turning up under a bench in a nearby cemetery. The second theft occurred in the 1970s and involved a boy walking into the gallery, removing the work from the wall, stuffing it under his jumper and calmly walking out. He was later caught riding his bicycle with Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III in the front basket, and somehow managed to escape without punishment.

The work was stolen again in 1981, being retrieved two months later when police caught four men riding in a taxi with the oil on oak panel painting with them. In 1983 a burglar broke in through a gallery skylight and removed the work using a crowbar. It remained missing until 1986 when it turned up in the luggage rack of a train in Germany. Having been stolen four times in 17 years from the same location, Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III is officially the most stolen painting in history, but with no reported thefts in the last 26 years, hopefully it’s going to stay put on the walls of the Dulwich Gallery for the foreseeable future.