Thief makes off with $100 million in art from Paris museum

A broken alarm system. A sawed-off padlock. A security video of a masked figure dressed in black slipping through a broken window. And empty picture frames leaning against a short stone wall facing the Seine.

As dawn broke Thursday, authorities in the French capital had egg on their faces and a high-profile mystery on their hands: How did a thief slip into Paris’ Art Deco-style Museum of Modern Art, across from the Eiffel Tower, avoid the three guards on duty and slip out with five paintings worth at least $100 million, among them works by Picasso and Matisse?

Those coming to grips with the loss said they were impressed by the feat.

“We’re dealing with an extreme level of sophistication,” said Christophe Girard, who is responsible for the French capital’s cultural affairs department.

Others in the art world were focused less on the thief’s skill than on what they regard as malfeasance by museum management. Paris officials revealed that part of the museum alarm system had been broken since March 30.

“The director of the museum should be fired right away,” said Ton Cremers, a museum security consultant and former head of security at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “It’s unthinkable that your security system not be fully working for two months. It’s like inviting the thieves in.”

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement that about $19 million was spent on a security upgrade from 2004 to 2006. When the alarm system broke, a maintenance company was notified immediately, but the new equipment never arrived.

“I’m particularly saddened and shocked by this theft,” Delanoe said.

The mayor said he wanted an administrative investigation of the crime, in addition to detective work by a special police brigade.

Girard said the theft appeared to have taken place between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. However, it wasn’t discovered until just before 7 a.m. Thursday. News reports said security video revealed a lone figure sneaking in through a window. Officials are still trying to figure out whether accomplices were involved.

The missing paintings include Pablo Picasso’s 1912 work “Pigeon With Peas,” Henri Matisse’s 1905 “Pastoral,” Amedeo Modigliani’s “Woman With a Fan” from 1919, Georges Braque’s 1906 “The Olive Tree Near l’Estaque,” and Fernand Leger’s 1922 “Still Life With Candlesticks.”

The value of the Picasso painting, a classic Cubist experiment with geometric forms, is estimated at about $28.5 million.

Interpol, the international police organization based in Lyon, France, was informed of the theft Thursday morning and immediately sent images of the stolen works to police headquarters in nearly 200 countries.

Thursday night, after the TV cameras had left, a few skateboarders were back, practicing jumps on what everyone calls “the dome,” a U-shaped stone square between the Museum of Modern Art and the adjacent Tokyo Palace contemporary art museum.

“It doesn’t shock me that they got in there,” said skateboarder Kevin Keubeuze, 16, a regular at the site. “It’s not a place that’s super watched-over.”

On many nights, people bring beers and might practice juggling or circus acts, he said. From “the dome,” they can look at paintings inside the Museum of Modern Art through large windows.

Questions about the level of museum security previously were raised by the French media. A Picasso sketchbook was stolen in June from the Picasso Museum in Paris, and an Edgar Degas pastel was stripped from the Cantini Museum in Marseille in December.

Stephane Thefo, an Interpol officer with the unit specializing in stolen art, defended those responsible for museum security in Paris.

“They are serious people, who work well … but after all, in France like elsewhere, zero risk doesn’t exist,” Thefo said. “Even if you have good protection, there can still be a theft.”

Chances are good that the art will be recovered, experts said. “The more famous an art piece, the harder it is to sell. We’ve found a lot of paintings that were very well known works of art,” he said.

“There could be a demand for ransom from the insurer,” he said. Or the thieves may not be able to get rid of their booty and simply leave the works somewhere.

That all might take awhile to play out. Cremers said about half the paintings stolen from museums are recovered, but it takes an average of seven years. The thieves in such cases, he said, “are usually ordinary criminals who also steal cars” and “have no idea what to do with the art.”

Experts say it is highly unlikely that the heist was a theft-for-hire organized by a wealthy collector.

Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr, president of the Tokyo Palace museum, told LCI French television just outside the cordoned-off museum that “no collector in the world is stupid enough to put his money in a painting he can neither show to other collectors nor resell without going to prison.”

“So Messieurs les Thieves, you are imbeciles!” he said. “Bring back the paintings, please.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.