Lone thief steals €100m of art from Paris museum
Published 21/05/2010 | 05:00
A LONE masked thief carried out one of the biggest thefts in art history when he stole five paintings valued at almost €100m in a dawn raid at a Paris art museum where the alarm system was broken.
The paintings -- including major works by Picasso and Matisse -- disappeared early yesterday morning from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower in one of the French capital's most chic and tourist-frequented neighbourhoods.
The museum's alarm system had been broken since March 30 in some rooms, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement. The security system operator ordered spare parts to fix it but had not received them from the supplier, the statement said.
The museum reopened in 2006 after spending €15m and three years upgrading its security system.
Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris City Hall, said a single masked intruder was caught on a video surveillance camera.
Investigators are trying to determine whether the intruder was operating alone, Mr Girard told reporters, who suggested the heist was carried out by a very "sophisticated" team or individual. He said three guards were on duty overnight, but "they saw nothing".
The intruder entered by cutting a padlock on a gate and breaking a museum window, the Paris prosecutor's office said.
The prosecutor's office initially estimated the five paintings' total worth at as much as €500m but later downgraded that to €90m. Girard said the total value was "just under €100m".
He said "Le pigeon aux petits-pois" (The pigeon with peas) an ochre and brown Cubist oil painting by Pablo Picasso was worth an estimated €23m, and "La Pastorale" (Pastoral), an oil painting of nudes on a hillside by Henri Matisse was worth about €15m.
The other paintings stolen were "L'olivier pres de l'Estaque" (Olive Tree near Estaque) by Georges Braque; "La femme a l'eventail" (Woman with a fan) by Amedeo Modigliani; and "Nature morte aux chandeliers" (Still life with candlestick) by Fernand Leger.
Alice Farren-Bradley of the Art Loss Registry in London said the Paris theft "appears to be one of the biggest" art heists ever, considering the estimated value, the prominence of the artists and the high profile of the museum.
She added, however, that the value of the paintings would have to be confirmed, as museums and art dealers often value paintings differently.
She said it will be "virtually impossible" to sell such prominent paintings on the open market and that typically stolen art fetches lower prices on the black market.
"Very often they can be used as collateral to broker other deals" involving drugs or weapons, she said. "They are not necessarily going to be bought by some great lover of the arts."
While the thefts are often carefully planned, that's not always the case for the next step -- selling the stolen paintings -- which is why they are often recovered, she said.
Interpol is alerting its national bureaus around the world to the theft.
"This is a big theft, that is very clear," said Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigation. "These works are of an inestimable value."
He expressed doubt that one person could have pulled off the theft alone, even if only one person was caught on camera.
Red-and-white tape surrounded the museum, and paper signs on the museum doors said it was closed for technical reasons. On a cordoned-off balcony, police in blue gloves and face masks examined the broken window and empty frames. The paintings appeared to have been carefully removed from the disassembled frames, not sliced out.
A security guard at the museum said the paintings were discovered missing by a night watchman just before 7am.
Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, the director of the neighbouring modern art museum, Palais de Tokyo, called the thief, or thieves, "imbeciles". "You cannot do anything with these paintings. All countries in the world are aware, and no collector is stupid enough to buy a painting that, one, he can't show to other collectors, and two, risks sending him to prison," he said.
"In general, you find these paintings," he said. "These five paintings are un-sellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them."