The French Art Heist: Who Would Steal Unsaleable Picassos?

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Jacques Brinon / AP

Police officers search for clues as they pack up the frames of the stolen paintings outside the Paris Museum of Modern Art, Thursday May 20, 2010

The Paris art world was in shock Thursday, after French authorities revealed that a lone thief had made off with $120 million worth of modern masterpieces, including works by Picasso and Matisse, in a daring nighttime heist at the capital's Museum of Modern Art.

According to officials, the thief cut through a gate padlock and broke a window to gain access to the museum, all without alerting the security guards or triggering the museum's alarm system. A security camera filmed the intruder making off with five paintings, but the works were only discovered missing during morning rounds just before 7 a.m. on May 20. The stolen paintings are all priceless works by some of art's biggest names: Pastoral by Henri Matisse, Olive Tree near Estaque by Georges Braque, Woman with a Fan by Amedeo Modigliani, Still Life with Chandeliers by Fernand Leger, aand Pablo Picasso's Le pigeon aux petits-pois (Dove with Green Peas), a work from the painter's cubist period, alone worth an estimated $27 million.

"This is a serious crime against the heritage of humanity," said Paris' Deputy Mayor for Culture Christophe Girard, at a press conference held at the entrance of the museum, near the Eiffel Tower in the 16th district. The investigation into the heist by the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme (BRB) — the elite Paris police department dedicated to armed robberies, burglaries and art theft — has only just begun, but according to City Hall, they already know one important piece of information which explains how the crime was even possible: the museum's alarm system had been dysfunctional since March 30. The necessary replacement parts had been ordered, but they still hadn't arrived as of Thursday morning.

According to deputy mayor Girard, the crime was committed "by one or several evidently very organized individuals." But for Stéphane Théfo, a specialist officer at the Works of Art Unit at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, the more intriguing question is what could the thief possibly hope to gain from nabbing such easily recognizable works? "This kind of theft always surprises us, because it is obvious this type of painting is very difficult to sell on the market," he says. By now, Théfo notes, photos and descriptions of the works have been broadcast on TVs and websites around the globe, they have been circulated to Interpol offices in 188 countries, and they are listed on the Interpol stolen art database, which can be consulted by art dealers and members of the public everywhere. For this reason, Didier Rykner, Paris-based art historian and founder of the online art journal La Tribune de l'Art, is also perplexed. "This is certainly the biggest theft from a French museum in a very long time," he says. "It's incomprehensible to me because these works are absolutely unsalable. There isn't an art dealer on the market who would buy them."

But maybe the thief has a buyer already lined up — could the theft have been commissioned by a rich and unscrupulous art collector? Rykner is dubious. "That is something we almost never see, simply because billionaires have no problem finding Picassos and Braques on the art market, so why take the risk?" Théfo agrees: "This idea of a mad collector commissioning thefts to fill his home with works he can't show anyone mostly remains a myth," he says. "On the contrary, experience has shown that with this type of theft there are many possible explanations."

And those explanations probably involve organized crime and insurance company extortion scams or black market arms deals, according to Noah Charney, art history professor at the American University of Rome and founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Rome-based non-profit think tank. "The theft has all the markings of organized crime which, since the 1960s, has been responsible for most art crime worldwide," he says. "There is no market for such works, and they are most likely to either be ransomed, or to be used for trade or collateral on a closed black market, traded for other illicit goods such as drugs or arms between criminal groups." This, says Charney, is the "very serious and sinister side" of the thousands of art crimes reported annually worldwide. "Because of the involvement of organized crime groups, art theft fuels other crime types, from the drug and arms trades to terrorism."

To the dismay of art lovers everywhere, the Wednesday night heist was just the latest in a series of thefts of major works that France has seen over the past year, with Picasso proving to be a popular target. In January, some 30 paintings by Picasso and other artists — together valued at an estimated $1.5 million — were stolen from a private villa in the Cote d'Azur. And last June, a sketchbook containing more than 30 drawings and worth an estimated $4 million was stolen in the middle of the day from the Picasso Museum in Paris. "Picasso is far and away the most frequently stolen artist in history," says Charney.

Art historian Rykner finds the recent thefts maddening, but won't accept that "the only option left is to stop showing these works and keep everything locked up in safes." For now, though, that is just what the Museum of Modern art in Paris has had to do. On May 20, visitors to the museum found the doors closed, and on them a note saying the collections were closed to the public "due to technical difficulties."