In grand fashion, thief makes off with five masterpieces from museum in Paris

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; C01

Quelle tragédie!

A lone thief in Paris made off with five masterpieces in a daring midnight break-in at the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris early Thursday. The perpetrator took works by Picasso, Matisse and Braque that were conservatively valued at $125 million but are otherwise of incalculable worth. Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë said in a statement, "I am saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable assault on Paris's universal cultural heritage."

Well, sure. There's certainly that. But is there a soul breathing who doesn't also think: Man, how exciting!

Big-time heists like the Paris job occupy a special place in the public imagination. They aren't like ordinary crimes, which are dreary and depressing. Novels, movies and TV shows have trained us to believe a good caper is thrilling, even admirable. We think we know the vocabulary and visual terrain, from the dashing perp (Cary Grant in Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" is your go-to guy here) to the shocked-and-outraged victim to the feckless investigators.

But even stripped of Hollywood artifice, major art thefts are different. Unlike ordinary burglaries, they take planning and scheming, which invests them with a certain kind of intelligence and criminal nobility. Short of a broken window or two, they rarely involve physical violence or even guns. They involve insanely valuable objects, which elevates the act above the commonplace. Most of all, they take something missing from most crimes: nerve and smarts.

No matter how common the criminal or base his motive, stealing a masterpiece is almost always a heart-pounding caper. Anyone can steal a car; try nabbing something protected by rings of human and electronic security. The potential complications -- and hence, the risk of failure -- are extraordinarily high. How to get in? How to get out? What to do about the cameras, the motion detectors, the guards? How to select the loot? How to transport it? Is it better to stash it or sell it?

The heist at the Musee d'Art had all the elements that have filled bestsellers and movie theaters for decades. Consider:

Location. The museum was in Paris, not Wichita. Art-wise, this is the big time, the epicenter. Parisian museums have been dealing with art thefts for generations (a Louvre employee walked off with the Mona Lisa in 1911 and hid it in his apartment for two years), and they have some of the most sophisticated deterrence systems in the world. Hence, stealing from a French museum is like pitching a perfect game in Game 7 of the World Series.

The perp. By all accounts (including security-camera footage), the thief was a lone wolf. No "Ocean's Eleven" gang here (at least not on the inside). Just one guy with extra ice in his veins. Chapeaus off to you, monsieur.

The loot. The crook studied his museum guide well. Even the dumbest miscreant would know to go for a Picasso, but the Paris perp got a prime piece, "Pigeon with Peas," completed in 1911. Considering that a later and arguably lesser Picasso work, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," sold at auction for $106.5 million in New York earlier this month, the Paris haul could be one of the most valuable ever.

It's likely that the Paris thief had inside help with the crime, because most museum thefts are perpetrated that way, said Anthony Amore, the director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Contrary to the popular-culture image, Amore said, art thieves aren't specialists; they tend to be career criminals with rap sheets for many kinds of crimes.

One more thing: Crooks like this one probably won't get rich. The black market for such high-profile works is extremely limited; few private collectors want to spend millions on art that they can't show to anyone. Most art thieves "don't look past step one," said Amore, who has been investigating the unsolved theft of masterpieces from the Gardner in 1990. "It's not easy to turn this into money."

Still, Amore said that art thieves are romanticized figures in part because of "class warfare" against the art world. "Some people look at museums and art as fodder for the rich," he said. "They don't understand that these masterpieces are our history and our culture, and they're important for generations to come."

Of course, it's true. Theft is immoral. So is the loss of cultural heritage.

But if Mayor Delanoë were candid, he might add to his statement and grudgingly acknowledge the elegance and cunning involved in the Paris heist. Surely, there's a French word for "audacity."

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