A thief stole five paintings valued at more than $100 million, including major works by Picasso and Matisse, in an overnight heist Thursday at a Paris modern art museum with a broken alarm system, officials said. The paintings disappeared early Thursday 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 yet received the equipment from the supplier, the statement said.
The museum reopened in 2006 after spending eruo15 million 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 climbing through a window during the night. Investigators are trying to determine whether the intruder was operating alone, Girard told reporters, who suggested the heist was carried out by a very “sophisticated” team or individual. (The Associated Press) “This is a serious crime to the heritage of humanity,” he added at a news conference. (BBC) Girard said security systems at the museum had been disabled. “There are three people in the museum at all times,” he said, but they saw nothing, which he said was evidence of tampering with the security systems. “We must absolutely leave the police to find out how the security system was disabled and now these important paintings were stolen,” he said on BFM TV, a CNN affiliate.
The hooded intruder, dressed in black, entered by cutting a padlock on the gate and breaking a museum window, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. He then used bolt cutters to remove a grid.
The prosecutor’s office initially estimated the five paintings total worth at as much as euro500 million ($613 million) but later downgraded that to euro90 million ($112 million). Girard said the total value was “just under $100 million euros.” (The AP) He said “Le pigeon aux petits-pois” (The Pigeon with the Peas”) an ochre and brown Cubist oil painting by Pablo Picasso, was worth an estimated eruo23million, and “La Pastorale” (“Pastoral”), an oil painting of nudes on a hillside by Henri Matisse about euro15 million. The other paintings stolen were “L’oliver 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 Chandeliers”) 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” including drugs or weapons, she said. “They are not necessarily going to be bought by some great lover of the arts.” (The AP) While 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,” Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigation, told The Associated Press. “These works are of inestimable value.” He expressed doubt that one person could have pulled off the theft alone, even if only one person was caught on camera.
The museum, which is owned by the city, was announced to remain closed while the investigation continues. 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 behind the museum, 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. Police officers carried out the original frames left behind by the burglar to search for fingerprints, passing them through the broken shards of the museum window.
A security guard at the museum said the paintings were discovered missing by a night watchman just before 7 a.m. (1 a.m. Thursday EDT). The guard was not authorized to be publicly named because of museum policy.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement that he was “saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable attack on Paris’ universal cultural heritage.” (The AP)
Investigators think that international crime gangs use art works effectively as a form of currency. For criminals dealing in drugs or weapons, a rolled up painting is a way of carrying very large amounts of “currency”, even if it is one tenth of the value at auction, the BBC’s arts correspondent adds.
The director of the neighbouring modern art museum Paris de Tokyo, Pierre Comete de Saint-Cyr, called the thief or thieves “fools.” “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 on LCI television. “In general, you find these paintings,” he said. “These five paintings are un-sellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them.” (The AP)
Ideally, the Paris police will be able to apprehend the thief or thieves quickly and secure the return of the artwork. However, the museum will likely be getting a ransom demand in the next few days, according to Chris Marinello, executive director and general counsel of Art Loss Register, an international organization that maintains a vast database detailing stolen art worldwide.
“A theft of this magnitude had to be done by a very sophisticated group,” he told CBC News Thursday morning. “They managed to disable a major French museum’s security system and leave with five major works of art… There are gangs out there that specialize in this sort of thing.” Once the thieves realize the open market is out of question, “they’re going to go deep down into the black market where art of this calibre is often traded for weapons [or] is used in international terrorism. It obtains a sort of 10 to 20 per cent value of its true value in the black market,” Marinello said. Some type of intermediary will likely demand money from the museum or from its insurance company, he said, adding that the Art Loss Registry discourages paying ransoms because it encourages more theft and shows “that crime does pay.” Time is also of the essence in the investigation and recovery effort, Marinello said. “If we don’t recover these in the next several months, you’re going to find that it may take years before they resurface.” (CBC)
Flemming Friborg, manager of Copenhagen’s Glyptotek museum – known for its Impressionist paintings, among others – called the theft of the high-caliber paintings “like the death of a family member.” (The AP)
There has not been anything comparable since the 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston of a Vermeer, several Rembrandts, Degas and other masterpieces. None of these works has yet been recovered.