Paris cops hunt thief of Picasso, Matisse

21st May 2010, Comments 0 comments

French police on Friday hunted a brazen burglar who made off with masters by Picasso, Matisse and other big names worth 120 million dollars from a Paris museum, raising new questions about art security.

The Modern Art Museum's alarm had been awaiting repair for several weeks, according to the city's mayor, and the swift and simple raid was only the latest in a series of Paris art thefts.

The burglar sheared off a gate padlock and broke a window to get into the famous tourist draw on the banks of the Seine, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

Three guards were on duty, but the paintings were only found to be missing just as the museum prepared to open to the public on Thursday morning.

"According to estimates by the management of the Musee d'Art Moderne, the value of the stolen canvases totals between 90 and 100 million euros," said a spokesman for Paris city hall, which operates the museum.

Besides the Henri Matisse and the Pablo Picasso, a work by Georges Braque, one by Fernand Leger and another by Amedeo Modigliani were snatched.

The stolen Picasso alone -- the cubist "Dove with Green Peas," which the Spanish artist created in 1912 -- is worth some 25 million euros, according to the mayor's deputy for culture, Christophe Girard.

"But in any case, we're talking about a theoretical value, they don't have a market value, because you couldn't openly sell them. They're too well known," said Didier Rykner, editor of the specialist magazine The Art Tribune.

The others were French contemporary: Matisse's "Pastoral" from 1905, Braque's "Olive Tree near Estaque", Modigliani's "Woman with a Fan" and Leger's "Still Life with Candlestick".

Video surveillance cameras spotted one person entering through a window.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said one of the museum's alarms had been "partly malfunctioning" since the end of March, and that it was still awaiting repair when the robbery took place.

He expressed shock at "an intolerable attack on the universal cultural heritage in Paris."

"This looks like an operation by a professional gang, by organised criminals," said Girard. "We are dealing with an extremely high level of sophistication."

"To get into the museum so fast by disassembling a window, choose five specific works and then slip out unnoticed by the guards. That is quite impressive."

The burglary is the biggest since four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh and Monet valued at more than 180 million Swiss francs (127 million euros, 162 million dollars) were stolen from a Zurich museum in February 2008.

France has seen a growing number of art thefts in recent months.

In January, about 30 paintings -- including some by Picasso and Henri 'Douanier' Rousseau -- were stolen from a private villa in the Cote d'Azur, with a total estimated value of around one million euros.

On New Year's Eve, a pastel by Edgar Degas disappeared from the Cantini museum in Marseille, also in the south of France. The 1877 painting worth 800,000 euros had been lent for an exhibition by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

In June last year, the Picasso Museum in Paris was robbed in broad daylight of a book of drawings by the celebrated 20th century artist, worth an estimated three million euros.

© 2010 AFP

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