By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
PARIS, Aug. 6 -- Five armed, masked thieves sprinted into an art museum on the French Riviera during opening hours Sunday afternoon and snatched a Monet and three other masterpieces off the walls in the latest brazen heist of high-profile art from the rich collections of Europe.
Wearing jumpsuits, the robbers ordered guards to lie on the floor at gunpoint as accomplices fanned through the galleries of Nice's Museum of Fine Arts. One thief grabbed French impressionist Claude Monet's "Cliffs Near Dieppe" while others snagged the bucolic "Lane of Poplars at Moret" by another impressionist, Alfred Sisley, and two evocative oil paintings by Flemish Baroque-era artist Jan Bruegel the Elder, according to Interpol, the international police agency.
The thieves stuffed the paintings in bags and made their getaways by motorcycle and car, French authorities said Monday. Interpol described the haul as "four paintings of inestimable value."
"Who could expect to be held up in broad daylight like that?" Patricia Grimaud, deputy curator of the museum, said in a telephone interview from Nice on Monday. "They were really bold and quick, it took them only 10 minutes. I can't find the right words to describe what they did."
The daytime heist of well-known paintings ranks among the most audacious examples of a growing number of thefts from public and private collections, according to French law enforcement officials. Interpol estimates that art thefts total billions of dollars a year, with France and Italy consistently hit hardest because of their vast troves of art and artifacts.
The most notorious similar case occurred in 2004 when armed thieves burst into Oslo's lightly guarded Munch Museum during opening hours and tore Edvard Munch's masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna" from the wall as shocked patrons looked on. The paintings were recovered under still-undisclosed circumstances a year ago, and three men are serving jail terms for the thefts.
The vast majority of art thefts are surreptitious burglaries at museums after hours, at private homes and at poorly monitored storage facilities. Earlier this year, Picasso's "Maya With Doll" and "Portrait of Jacqueline" -- valued together at $66 million -- were stolen in a burglary at the home of Picasso's granddaughter in Paris.
While it has become virtually impossible to sell the better-known stolen pieces on the public art market, a clandestine trade in valuable artworks and artifacts is exploding globally among wealthy private collectors, according to Interpol and other law enforcement agencies. Recovery of the pieces is made difficult because many victims fail to report adequate details of the thefts and many countries keep poor records, according to Interpol officials.
Nice museum officials said Monday that the 1897 Monet and 1890 Sisley paintings had been stolen in a previous incident involving the same museum nine years ago. The Monet was later found in a boat under repair at a marina and the Sisley was recovered in the sewers of Marseilles on France's southern coast, according to French media reports. The museum curator at the time was convicted of complicity in the thefts and sentenced to five years in prison.
Grimaud, the deputy curator, said Monday that she arrived at the museum in downtown Nice 10 minutes after Sunday's robbery. "Yesterday the museum was free, like every first Sunday of the month," she said. "We had six guards for the two floors."
At 1 p.m., the five armed thieves "held up the two downstairs guards, went upstairs, held up the guards there and took the four paintings off their X-shaped hooks and left," she said.
The robbers attempted to steal a fifth painting, but it was too large to fit into their bags, according to witnesses cited in French news accounts. About half a dozen visitors were in the museum at the time, authorities said.
The men ran out of the ornate, ocher-colored 19th-century villa that houses the museum; two hopped on a motorcycle and the three others leapt into a waiting car and sped away, authorities said.
"We don't have security devices for each painting," Grimaud said. "It's very easy to remove a painting from its hook. The fact that there were few visitors and few guards made it much easier for them."
Grimaud, who said she was questioned by police for 2 1/2 hours Monday morning, said the museum alarm is turned on only when the museum is closed.
The Monet and Sisley works were on loan to the Nice museum from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
Authorities said the oil paintings would be impossible to sell on the open art market.
Culture Minister Christine Albanel expressed "indignation" and "sadness" at the theft of the artworks. In a statement released Monday, she praised the museum staff for their cool response, which she said made it possible to avoid injury to the visitors in the museum galleries. She urged the thieves to return the paintings undamaged.
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.