Sunday, May 30, 2010

Masterpieces Stolen From Paris Museum

MAY 21, 2010
Masterpieces Stolen From Paris Museum

PARIS — Five paintings valued at close to €100 million ($124 million) and including works by Picasso and Matisse were stolen from one of Paris's most prestigious museums, French authorities said.

The theft was discovered early Thursday, before Paris's Musée d'Art Moderne, located across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower, opened its doors to the public.

Police late Thursday weren't sure how the robbery was carried out but thought it could have been done by a single thief acting alone, said Christophe Girard, Paris deputy mayor in charge of culture.

They have so far collected several clues, he said: a broken padlock on a gate; a dismantled window; footage of a masked intruder caught by a surveillance camera; and five picture frames lying against a wall outside the museum.

The museum is equipped with alarm systems and surveillance cameras—equipment that was upgraded five years ago as part of a €15 million refurbishment. It was also guarded by three night wardens, said Mr. Girard.

Police examine the frames of the stolen paintings outside the Paris Museum of Modern Art on Thursday.
"People at the museum are traumatized," he said in a telephone interview. "These are such important pieces of art. It's clear that the security system was outfoxed."

The museum's alarm system had suffered technical problems in recent weeks, and a supplier had yet to deliver some replacement parts, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, said in a statement.

However, Mr. Girard said the alarm problem alone couldn't explain how a thief or a team of thieves could have broken into the museum so easily.

Four paintings—the Picasso, the Matisse, a Braque and a Léger—were stolen from one exhibition hall. The fifth, by Modigliani, was taken from another hall.

"It seems as if they knew exactly what they were looking for and knew the value of each painting," Mr. Girard said. "There were two paintings by Modigliani hung next to each other and they took the more expensive."

Police didn't rule out the possibility that the thief or thieves had accomplices within the museum, he said.

Mr. Girard said the stolen paintings were valued at a combined €92 million, according to the museum's books. The two most expensive were "Dove With Green Peas" by Pablo Picasso, valued at €25 million, and "Pastoral" by Henri Matisse, valued at an estimated €20 million, he said.

Police said it would be virtually impossible to sell the stolen paintings to museums or at art auctions because they are too well known. They said, however, that thieves sometimes try to extort money from insurance companies, which may be willing to recover stolen goods at a fraction of their value, instead of paying full compensations to museums.

The Paris mayor's office said the museum would remain closed until further notice.

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, the Associated Press reported. She also said the value of the paintings would have to be verified as museums and art dealers often value paintings differently.

French museums have suffered several thefts in recent months. Last year, a notepad with Picasso drawings, valued at an estimated $5 million, was stolen from Paris's Picasso museum, which was undergoing renovation. In December, a drawing by Edgar Degas was stolen at a museum in Marseille.

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