Five stolen paintings including a Matisse, a Picasso and a Modigliani worth almost £100 million ended up in a street dustbin and were likely crushed by a rubbish truck, a suspect has reportedly told police.
Henry Samuel reports for The Telegraph from Paris: “Paris authorities and art lovers around the globe were appalled in May last year when a lone, hooded burglar managed to climb into the capital’s Musée d’Art Moderne opposite the Eiffel Tower and help himself to the five celebrated oeuvres, which he cut from their frames and rolled up.
Thanks to a faulty alarm system and the doziness of three guards, he quietly made off with Dove with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso (painted in 1911), Pastoral by Henri Matisse (1906), Olive Tree near l’Estaque by Georges Braque (1906), Woman with Fan by Amedeo Modigliani (1919) and Still Life with Candlestick by Fernand Leger (1922).
The Art Loss Registry in London called the Pink Panther-style robbery “one of the biggest art heists ever, considering the estimated value, the prominence of the artists and the high profile of the museum”.
Paris city hall put the total value of the haul at 100 million euros but some experts said they were worth twice that.
It took officers from the Serious Crime Brigade more than a year before placing three men – the alleged thief and two accomplices – under official investigation.
According to police sources cited by Le Journal du Dimanche, one of the alleged accomplices, a 34-year-old watch repairer known only as Jonathan B, told detectives that when the other two men were arrested in May, he “panicked and destroyed the canvasses before throwing them into a rubbish bin”.
Detectives said that while they remained sceptical about his account, they could not “totally rule out” this catastrophic scenario. The destruction of such landmark masterpieces would be a major blow to international art heritage.
The first to be arrested was a Serb known only as Vrejan T, 43, nicknamed “Spiderman” and who was detained days after last year’s heist over a separate art theft from a chic Paris apartment.
Under questioning, the suspect reportedly recounted how he loosened screws in a window at the Art Deco Palais de Tokyo housing the museum, returned a few nights later to remove the frame and sliced through a padlock on an iron grille.
He had initially gone there only to steal a Léger work to order, he said, but once inside, was “surprised” when the burglary alarm failed to sound.
Being a “veritable art lover,” the Serb told police he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras to cherry pick four other masterpieces. “He found the Modigliani the most beautiful of all,” a judicial source told the JDD.
Vrejan T reportedly told investigators he had stolen the Léger for Jean-Michel C, 56, an antiques dealer with a shop called Antiquités Bastille. He was arrested in May for selling other stolen art works.
Detectives told le JDD the Serb gave them his name as he never received the 40,000 euros promised for the Léger.
The antiques dealer denied his claims, and said the Serb left the works at his boutique without his consent. He said he then passed them onto the younger watchmaker, a recognised expert used by auction houses. He told police Jonathan B had mentioned potential Israeli buyers.
But the watchmaker told police he simply dumped the priceless works in a dustbin.
French art museums have come in for criticism in recent years after a spate of brazen robberies. Months before the modern art raid, a thief walked out of a gallery in Marseilles with Degas’ The Chorus under his coat.
The FBI estimates the market for stolen art at £3 billion annually and Interpol has about 30,000 pieces of stolen art in its database.”