A gang of at least five professional art thieves held about 50 visitors and guards at gunpoint Sunday in a daring daytime raid at Paris' Marmottan Museum and escaped with nine Impressionist paintings of almost incalculable value.
"It's the (art) theft of the century," declared museum curator Yves Brayer.
The most valuable painting taken was "Impression, Soleil Levant," or "Sunrise, an Impression," painted by Claude Monet in 1872 and donated to the museum in 1950. It is the painting that gave the turn-of-the-century Impressionist School its name and is considered to be worth at least $3 million. Brayer valued the other paintings at more than $9 million.
Brandishing pistols, several of the gang quickly herded the museum visitors and eight guards into one room and forced them to lie on the floor while others swiftly lifted from the walls "Sunrise, an Impression," and four other paintings by Monet, two by Pierre Auguste Renoir, one by Berthe Morisot and the ninth by the artist Naruse. Two of the stolen non-Monet paintings were portraits of that artist.
"They were connoisseurs," museum manager Josette Tavera said. "They knew what they were looking for."
Witnesses said that several of the gunmen entered the museum fifteen minutes after it opened at 10 a.m. They had double-parked a car in front, leaving its trunk open. Inside the museum, which was once a private townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne, they apparently were joined by several accomplices who had arrived with the first Sunday morning visitors.
Within minutes, the paintings had been loaded into the trunk of the waiting car, and the gang sped off.
A burglar alarm that was set to go off at the nearest police station if any of the museum canvases was disturbed had been turned off when the museum opened. According to museum officials, the thieves timed their raid with precision.
All Would Be Recognized
What they will be able to do with the nine paintings is another matter. All the stolen works are well known in the art world, and none can be disposed of without being immediately recognized. A demand for their ransom therefore seems likely.
Brayer called the stolen paintings "very fragile works" and said they should be handled as little as possible."
In addition to "Sunrise, an Impression," Brayer said the missing paintings were "Camille Monet and Cousin on the Beach at Trouville," "Portrait of Jean Monet," "Portrait of Poly, Fisherman of Belle-Isle" and "Field of Tulips in Holland" by Monet; "Bather Sitting on a Rock" and "Portrait of Monet" by Renoir; "Young Woman at the Ball" by Morisot, and "Portrait of Monet" by Naruse.
The Marmottan Museum is one of the small specialist "gem museums" of Paris. It was established in 1932 by an art historian, Paul Marmottan, who bequeathed his house and his own collection to the Academy of Fine Arts. Other bequests followed, and in 1971 the museum holdings were substantially strengthened when Michel Monet, son of Claude Monet, donated 65 paintings by his father. The museum was then enlarged with the construction of a special underground gallery beneath the original Marmottan mansion, where most of the Monet canvases and other Impressionist paintings are hung.