Sometimes, despite a thief's best efforts, an object will just be too difficult to steal. In such cases, the next best thing is to convince everybody that it has been stolen by making it appear to vanish when, in fact, it has not gone anywhere at all.
There are multiple reasons why this might be done. Sometimes, especially if the object is symbolic in some fashion, making everyone believe it has been stolen is just effective as actually stealing it. At other times, making people think it has been stolen will cause the security measures to be disabled to allow an investigation to occur, and the thief plans to really steal the item once this happens.
Compare Hidden in Plain Sight.
- Played with in Naoki Urasawa's Mujirushi: Le Signe des Rêves: The Directeur wants to take a painting from the Louvre and hide it in an obscure corner of the same building. However, he doesn't want to ever steal it for real, because something that famous would be almost impossible to sell without getting caught. Instead he obtained a high-quality forgery, which can pass as the original when the real thing is assumed stolen. The Directur plans to sell the fake one, then anonymously inform the Louvre of the real one's location, which will largely end most of future investigation.
- In Sherlock Hound, Moriarty kidnaps Mrs Hudson and orders Hound to steal the Mona Lisa in exchange for her return. What Hound actually does, after causing a distraction to get people looking away, is to place a piece of wallpaper of the same pattern as the museum's on top of the painting, creating an illusion of an empty frame. After the police have evacuated the museum, the wallpaper falls off, revealing the painting to still be there, and that Hound wrote a letter to Lestrade explaining what was going on on the back of the wallpaper.
- In one short Batman story, a gem vanished from inside a special display case in a museum. The thief was the curator, who had designed the display case and the lighting for the exhibit. The top pane of glass was a special lens that, when the light shone through it, made the case appear to be empty. He then palmed the gem as he was dissembling the case for the police.
- In The Batman Adventures #2, Catwoman 'steals' the Crown Jewels from their temporary display gallery by hiding them under the podium to make people think they've been stolen; planning to return and steal them for real once the security globe has been turned off.
- In Now You See Me, the Horsemen steal a safe by using a large-scale version of a standard vanishing trick to make it appear that the safe is already gone, and laying a false trail that the police chase off after, allowing the Horsemen to remove the safe at leisure.
- This is how Moriarty steals the gold reserves in Sherlock Holmes in New York. He constructs a replica of the vault one level above the actual vault, with a tunnel leading away from it. He then gimmicks the elevator so it stops at the fake vault rather than the real vault. The officials find the empty vault and are convinced the gold has been stolen. This gives Moriarty and his men all of the time they need to tunnel into the actual vault and remove all of the gold.
- The Bands of Mourning: Inverted; this is how the treasure is protected. The eponymous Bands are hidden inside a massive temple filled with deathtraps. The lucky treasure hunter who gets past the death traps is greeted with a room designed to look like it had been robbed ages ago. This is meant to keep the seeker from looking farther and finding the hidden chamber. Which in turn contains a fake treasure for people who think they beat the con. The real treasure is hidden right next to the entrance.
- This happens a few times on the Discworld:
- The Fifth Elephant: Nobody knows where the Scone of Stone has vanished to, despite being guarded in an underground lake round-the-clock by guards behind a system of locks and pressure plates that guarantee no one can enter or leave the room undetected. Vimes proves it's possible for someone significantly taller than a dwarf to leave without setting it off, but the people plotting to remove the scone and depose the current Low King simply crumbled it to dust much like the fine sand of the cave floor, intending to use a plaster replica to intronise their own candidate.
- Thud!: A gigantic painting is stolen first by cutting it out of its cylindrical frame, then rolling it up among other rolls of fabric, to be removed later. Hey, everyone already thinks it's gone by then, don't they? Before this is discovered, one of the ideas brought up for getting it out: remove the painting from the frame and flip it around so that the back is showing instead. For extra camouflage, paint the bare back the same color as the surrounding wall. Then remove later, as above.
- Last Son of Krypton has Lex Luthor rob a sealed vault by making a hologram of himself appear out of it as soon as it opens. While everyone chases after the hologram, the real Luthor gets in without a problem.
- Nick Velvet: This is how Sandra 'steals' a roulette wheel out of a busy casino in "The Theft of the White Queen's Menu". Unknown to the casino owners, the wheel was one gimmicked to drop inside the table when a hidden switch is hit (which is why her client wanted it stolen). Sandra waits till no one is looking, and then hits the switch. She later sends her men in dressed as movers to remove the now 'empty' table.
- In Paradox Bound, it's revealed that the Dream was never missing to begin with. It never left its original location and merely created an optical illusion around itself to appear gone. The Faceless Men rely on their certainty, which the Dream was also fooling and never bothered actually feeling around on the table. And why did the Dream do this? Because it had to go missing for people to start searching for it across space and time.
- In "Ten Thousand Dollars a Page", a valuable book is stolen by having it drop into a specially constructed niche in it display case. It seems to vanish and the display case shows no sign of having being opened because it hasn't.
- In "The Vanishing Chalice", the eponymous chalice is seemingly stolen during its unveiling. Using a carefully arranged distraction, the thief slipped an angled mirror in front of the chalice so that it reflected the surrounding drapes and made it appear that the niche was empty.
- Colonel March of Scotland Yard: In "The Second Mona Lisa", the would-be thief breaks into Lawson's hotel room, knocks out his bodyguard, and twists the eponymous painting so it is hanging askew on the wall. This convinces Lawson that the painting has been stolen and replaced with a copy, so he removes it to be re-authenticated, allowing the art expert to misidentify the real painting and send Lawson away with the copy.
- CSI: In "Suckers", Grissom deduces that the antique katana stolen from a display room in a casino never actually left the room but was stashed by the thief in the ceiling crawlspace. While he is correct, this turns out to be just part of a much bigger con.
- Father Brown: In "The Two Deaths of Hercule Flambeau", Flambeau and his accomplice stage an elaborate crime scene, including knocking out the guards, to make it appear that a crown has been stolen from the safe, when the safe has actually not been opened. They know that Father Brown's investigation of the 'theft' will allow them to actually gain access to the safe and steal the crown.
- Hustle: In "New Recruits", Mickey and the crew pull a con where they convince a pair of marks that the painting they declared to be 'unstealable' has just been stolen. The crew do this by erecting a fake wall directly in front of the wall where the painting is hanging.
- The InBESTigators: An accidental version occurs in "The Case of the Misplaced Mug" when it turns out Principal McGillick's 'World's Best Principal' mug never left his office at all. It was accidentally placed in the recycling bin because of his habit of covering it with a folder to keep it warm when he left the office.
- Jonathan Creek:
- In "The Scented Room", a valuable painting disappears from inside a seemingly empty chamber. The painting never actually left the room. The thief slipped it inside the heavy, double-thickness door. Jonathan drives the owner to distraction by recovering the painting but refusing to reveal to him how the theft was committed.
- In the episode "Gorgons Wood", a priceless (and apparently cursed) porcelain statue disappears from a locked room, with its currently trustee (who was with it at the time) suffering a swelling of the face for no apparent reason. She was in on it; the statue was stolen ahead of time, and replaced with a sugar replica, which she ate (one of the food dyes apparently triggering an allergic reaction).
- Leverage: "The Frame-Up Job" involves a painting owned by a reclusive millionaire that he kept in a vault that only he had access to, but upon his death is found to have been stolen. Nate eventually figures out that the man's son, a contractor, gained access to the vault and built a false wall over the painting, making it appear to be gone.
- The Magician: In "Ovation for Murder", Tony breaks a friend out of the jail wing of a hospital and then conceals him in a linen closet on the same floor. This convinces the real criminals that he has escaped, while allowing him to convince the police that he never left the secure floor.
- Used in "Paris", the second Birling Day episode of Cabin Pressure. Instead of refilling Mr Birling's bottle of Talisker with cheap whisky, Douglas paints the inside of the glasses with a clear solution meant to discourage people from biting their nails, so when Martin checks that it's still Talisker, it tastes horrible, and he assumes it's been replaced with cheap whisky.
- In Fillmore!, When Fillmore visits his former partner Wayne's school and all of the pralines the school was planning to sell get stolen mysteriously from a secured brick vault, Fillmore and Wayne eventually figure out that the pralines had actually been hidden inside the vault itself, their boxes painted the color of brick (with food coloring to prevent anyone from smelling paint) and stacked up against the wall.