Paris thieves net Picasso, Matisse in $124 million heist

PARIS Thu May 20, 2010 2:33pm EDT

1 of 10. A reproduction of 'Pastorale, Nympe et Faune' painted in 1906 by Henri Matisse is seen in this undated handout.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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PARIS (Reuters) - Art thieves stole paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and two other well-known artists from a Paris museum overnight in a heist worth 100 million euros ($124 million).

Officials from the Musee d'Art Moderne de la ville de Paris said they discovered the five paintings, which included works by Fernand Leger and Georges Braque, were missing after noticing a smashed window pane as they opened for business on Thursday.

"This is a serious crime against the heritage of humanity," said Christophe Girard, culture deputy for the mayor of Paris. He did not know how many thieves were involved.

Museum officials said the paintings were worth about 100 million euros in total, revising an earlier figure of 500 million euros released by the police and public prosecutors.

The last big art theft in Paris was that of 32 drawings at the Picasso Museum worth 8 million euros last June. Both thefts raise the question of what could be done with the works.

Robert Read, head of art and private clients at specialist insurer Hiscox in London, said private buyers were unlikely to have ordered the robbery as art was acquired to be exhibited.

"It's more likely to be criminals trying to extort money from the museum or state, or who trade it in the underworld for drugs or weapons," he said.

The stolen works were Picasso's "Dove with Green Peas," Matisse's "Pastorale," Braque's "Olive tree near l'Estaque," Modigliani's "Woman on the range" and Leger's "Still life with candlesticks."

Picasso's Dove, from the Spanish master's Cubist period, is valued at 22 million euros. His 1932 portrait of his lover Marie-Therese Walter, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," sold on May 5 for $106.5 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art.

"Whether it's 100 million or 500 million it's a huge amount," said Read. "It's as big as you get when it comes to theft. It's the Premier League of thefts."

A special interior ministry unit, the BRB, is in charge of the investigation and took away the frames of the paintings for further analysis.

Read said that more often than not stolen paintings are recovered. Edvard Munch's The Scream was returned in 2006, two years after gunmen stole it from the Munch Museum in Norway.

Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau reported in an advance copy of its Friday edition the paintings were not insured, quoting Managing Director Stefan Horsthemke from Axa-Art insurers.

"These objects are to our knowledge not insured," he told the paper, adding that the museum had asked Axa to help investigate the theft.

SECURITY SYSTEM FAILINGS?

Museum employees found the broken window at the rear of the east wing of the "Palais de Tokyo," built during the Universal Exhibition of 1937. The Modern Art Museum is in the 16th arrondissement, across the river Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

The museum has sophisticated alarm systems, closed circuit television and three guards were on hand on Wednesday night. Local television said the alarm system had not been triggered.

"We must let the police find out how the security system was evaded, especially as these three watchmen saw nothing and did not react," Girard said.

A sheet of white paper on the double doors told visitors the museum would remain closed on Thursday "for technical reasons."

"It's Pink Panther material in the center of Paris with huge media interest," said Elliot Macdonald, curator of the art collection at Hiscox.

(Additional reporting by Nicolas Bertin and Thierry Leveque; Writing by John Irish and Sophie Taylor; editing by Tim Pearce)

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Comments (1)
MekhongKurt wrote:
Given the ability to make master forgeries these days, I wonder if it might be time to do just exactly that.

Then, don’t put *only* forgeries up on any given day — rotate them. That is, maybe on any given day only 1/5th of the paintings (or other art objects) on display are the originals, the other 4/5th’s the forgeries.

Further, ANYone except perhaps the curator should be kept from knowing which is which, to help avoid the possibility of an inside job.

Finally, perhaps all the objects should be displayed within a case — out of reach.

I know art devotees will faint at the thought, but isn’t this a better approach than to risk the disappearance *forever* of a shared heritage?

May 21, 2010 2:56am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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