Paris art heist: 'Imbecile' thief ordered to return €100m paintings haul

Paris art heist: 'Imbecile' thief ordered to return €100m paintings haul

A lone thief stole five art masterpieces worth at least €100m by breaking into a supposedly top security major Paris museum.

The masked man was caught on surveillance video getting into a back window early today. The Paris Museum of Modern Art's alarm system did not activate - police do not yet know why.

The thief took the works, which included a Picasso and Matisse, dismantled their frames and left with the canvases.

Christophe Girard, the city’s deputy culture secretary, said police were trying to discover whether the intruder was operating alone.

He said three guards were on duty overnight but “saw nothing”.

The prosecutor’s office initially estimated the five paintings’ total worth at as much as €500m but Mr Girard insisted the figure was “just under €100m”.

He said “Le pigeon aux petits-pois” (The Pigeon with the Peas) an ochre and brown Cubist oil painting by Pablo Picasso, was worth an estimated €23m, and “La Pastorale” (Pastoral), an oil painting of nudes on a hillside by Henri Matisse about €15m.

The other paintings stolen were “L’olivier pres de l’Estaque” (Olive Tree near Estaque) by Georges Braque; “La femme a l’eventail” (Woman with a Fan) by Amedeo Modigliani; and “Nature-mort aux chandeliers” (Still Life with Chandeliers) by Fernand Leger.

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.

She added, however, that the value of the paintings would have to be confirmed, as museums and art dealers often value paintings differently.

Interpol was alerting its national bureaux around the world to the theft.

“This is a big theft, that is very clear,” said Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigation. “These works are of an inestimable value.”

He doubted that one person could have pulled off the theft alone, even if only one person was caught on camera.

Red and white tape surrounded the museum today, where investigators were studying surveillance video. Signs on the doors said it was closed for technical reasons.

On a cordoned-off rear balcony police in blue gloves and face masks examined the broken window and empty frames. The paintings appeared to have been carefully removed from the disassembled frames, not sliced out.

A security guard at the museum said the paintings were discovered missing by a night watchman just before 7am.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said he was “saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable attack on Paris’ universal cultural heritage”.

The director of the neighbouring modern art museum Palais de Tokyo, Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, called the thief or thieves “fools”.

“You cannot do anything with these paintings. All countries in the world are aware, and no collector is stupid enough to buy a painting that, one, he can’t show to other collectors, and two, risks sending him to prison,” he said.

“In general, you find these paintings,” he said. “These five paintings are un-sellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them.”

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