Picasso, Matisse and other art from 2010 Paris heist may be in Israel
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Picasso, Matisse and other art from 2010 Paris heist may be in Israel

‘Spiderman’ burglar on trial over $100m haul of five paintings; one accomplice suspected of selling them to Israeli collector

Pastoral, Henri Matisse, 1905 (WikiArt)
Pastoral, Henri Matisse, 1905 (WikiArt)

PARIS — A burglar dubbed “Spiderman,” notorious for daring acrobatic heists, went on trial here this week for a $100 million art heist in 2010 that saw works by Picasso and Matisse stolen from a Paris gallery.

Investigators reportedly believe the works may have been smuggled to Israel by one of two other defendants in the trial, for sale to an Israeli collector.

Vjeran Tomic, a 49-year-old who is a skilled rock climber, faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted of the robbery. His co-defendants face up to 10 years.

The second defendant, antiques dealer Jean-Michel Corvez, is accused of ordering one of the paintings, by Fernand Léger, on behalf of a “Moroccan or Saudi” collector.

And the third defendant, Yonathan Birn, a rare watch dealer, is accused of concealing all five paintings after the heist, and suspected of having brougth them to Israel, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported.

Vjeran Tomic, the main suspect in the 2010 theft of five masterpieces from the Paris Modern Art Museum, arrives at his trial on January 30, 2017, at the courthouse in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY)
Vjeran Tomic, the main suspect in the 2010 theft of five masterpieces from the Paris Modern Art Museum, arrives at his trial on January 30, 2017, at the courthouse in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY)

When questioned in court, Birn claimed he had panicked and thrown all the artwork away. “I’m crying because it’s monstrous what I’ve done,” he said according to the indictment. “I was overcome with panic. I lost all reason and decided to take the paintings out of my workplace and from a safe.”

Birn said in court that he “understands that nobody believes” his claim that he destroyed the works. And investigators suspect that he smuggled the paintings out of the country, perhaps to Israel, which he recently visited. Investigators “believe that the works were sold to a collector — perhaps in Israel, which Mr Birn visited,” the Telegraph said.

Tomic arrived in a blue overcoat and sweatshirt for his trial in Paris and admitted to carrying out the heist after being arrested in May 2011 and compared himself to a famed thief from French literature as he spoke to reporters on Monday.

“What role did I have? Arsene Lupin,” he told reporters with a smile, referring to the sly but charming character who ransacked rich Parisians’ homes in stories published at the start of the 20th century.

Tomic and the two alleged accomplices have been charged over the May 2010 robbery at the Modern Art Museum of five paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Ferdinand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani. All the artworks are still missing.

Tomic is suspected of cutting through a padlocked gate and breaking a window to get into the gallery, one of the most-visited museums in Paris on the banks of the Seine.

The museum’s alarms had been awaiting repair for several weeks and Tomic is alleged to have somehow knocked out a security camera.

Three guards were on duty that night, but the paintings were only found to be missing from their frames just as the museum prepared to open to the public the next day.

When police arrested the Serb in May 2011, Tomic told them he had initially broken into the museum for Leger’s “Still Life with Candlestick” from 1922, not thinking he would also be able to steal another four.

Besides the Leger canvas, the other works stolen were Picasso’s cubist “Dove with Green Peas” from 1912 — alone worth an estimated 25 million euros ($26.8 million) — French contemporary Matisse’s “Pastoral” from 1905, Braque’s “Olive Tree near Estaque” from 1906, and Modigliani’s “Woman with a Fan” from 1919.

All but the Modigliani were hung in the same room in the museum, located in the well-heeled 16th district of Paris, which is run by the city and is home to more than 8,000 works of 20th century art.

‘Liked’ paintings

Tomic, who has a criminal record of 14 previous offenses, said he took them all because he “liked” the paintings.

Authorities put the total value of the haul at 100 million euros ($107 million), but some experts said they were worth twice that, while admitting it would be impossible to sell such artworks on the open market.

The presiding judge at the trial on Monday, Peimane Ghaleh-Marzban, said the value of the masterworks was “far higher than their market value.”

They have still not been recovered.

Ghaleh-Marzban also criticized the security “failures” which enabled the heist to be carried out with “disconcerting ease.”

The defendants face a 10-year jail term if convicted for the theft or re-sale of the artworks, but Tomic’s sentence could be double that given his criminal record.

Athletically built and 1.90 meters (6 foot 2 inches) tall, he earned his nickname for clambering into posh Parisian apartments and museums to steal valuable gems and works of art.

Prosecutors claim he was spotted by a homeless man as he roamed around the museum in the days leading to the theft.

Police arrested him after receiving an anonymous tip and tracking his mobile phone. Surveillance cameras from the night of the heist recorded only one person entering through a window who could not be identified.

An art dealer who admitted to having the paintings for a short time said he dumped them in a garbage can, which authorities do not believe.

International police body Interpol put out an alert to its 188 member countries in the hope of recovering the five paintings, but so far they all remain missing.

There has been a spate of art thefts in Europe in recent years.

The most recent, in 2015, involved the theft of five paintings worth 25 million euros by renowned British artist Francis Bacon in Madrid.

Spanish police arrested seven people last year suspected of being involved in that theft.

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