By Edward Cody
Friday, May 21, 2010; A01
PARIS --In a brazen display of stealth, cunning and cool nerves, a thief using a sharp cutting tool opened a gated window and sneaked into the Paris Museum of Modern Art.
Three security guards were on duty at the time, but the thief -- or perhaps thieves -- detached five major cubist and post-impressionist paintings from their frames without being detected and slid back into the night with a rolled-up treasure worth well over $100 million.
The embarrassing heist -- of paintings by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger -- was discovered just before 7 a.m. Thursday, Paris officials said, probably long after the celebrated canvases had disappeared.
The operation was "a serious loss for the national patrimony" and one of the most damaging art thefts in recent years, said Christophe Girard, a city hall cultural attache.
"I am saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable attack on the universal cultural heritage of Paris," Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement. The museum was closed temporarily, he said, to allow police to investigate unhindered by art lovers.
Officers descended on the museum, in the tony 16th Arrondissement, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, seeking to determine how anyone could have entered the museum without setting off an elaborate security system. Wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks, the officers powdered the gilded frames in an effort to gather fingerprints, and they examined the pried-open gate and the fractured glass window to see how it was isolated from the alarm system.
But the mystery remained, particularly concerning what the security guards were doing while the paintings were being stripped from their frames and hauled away. Responding to news reports, Delanoe said the alarm system had been malfunctioning since late March.
Even the number of thieves was uncertain. Officials said security cameras captured only one person inside the museum, unidentifiable in a black ski mask. But it was unclear whether the thief had accomplices outside or whether others were inside but dodged the security cameras.
One thing seemed certain: Whoever did it knew what he or she or they were doing. It appears that someone had figured out how to frustrate the alarm system or perhaps had gotten wind that it was faulty. Someone had identified the gated window, with its lone padlock, as a chink in the armor and had figured out how to evade the security guards. And the guilty party headed straight for some of the museum's best-known works of art.
The museum listed the missing paintings as Picasso's "The Pigeon With Peas," Braque's "Olive Tree Near Estaque," Matisse's "La Pastorale," Modigliani's "Woman With a Fan" and Léger's "Still Life With Chandelier." Although the Paris prosecutor's office estimated their total value at more than $600 million, Girard put the total closer to $120 million.
Even at that, the heist rivaled some of the most dramatic and costly art thefts in modern history. The largest is thought to have been from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1991, a theft estimated at $500 million.
But the head of another modern art museum in Paris, the Palais de Tokyo, said whoever took the paintings might not be able to enjoy the haul. Speaking on LCI television, Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr said the paintings are too well known to be sold. Even outlaw collectors would hesitate to buy them, he said, because they would be unable to show them off to friends and would put themselves at risk of imprisonment.
The paintings stolen in Amsterdam in 1991, for instance, were found in a short time in an abandoned car not far from the museum. On the other hand, it took two years to recover one of the most famous paintings in the world, "The Scream" by the expressionist Edvard Munch, after it was stolen in 2004 from an Oslo museum dedicated to Munch's work.
Paris police posted images of the five stolen paintings on the Internet and asked the public to report any sightings. It appears the canvases were removed carefully from their frames, and they should be in good condition, officials said.
"In general, you find these paintings," Cornette said in the television interview. "These five paintings are unable to be sold. So, thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles. Now return them."