May 21, 2010 in Nation/World

Thief lifts art from Paris museum

Picasso, Matisse among five taken
Devorah Lauter And Jori Finkel Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Police officers search for clues as they pack up the frames of stolen paintings outside the Paris Museum of Modern Art on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

Stolen paintings

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”

Fernand Leger’s 1922 “Still Life With Candlesticks.”

PARIS – 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 skill of the thief than on what they regard as malfeasance by museum management. Paris officials revealed that part of the museum alarm system had been out of order 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.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe 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 it was a solo operation or involved accomplices.

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.”

Questions about the level of museum security have been raised before 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.

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.


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