TOKYO -- The recent arrest of an alleged Japanese fur coat thief has led to the recovery here of three pre-Impressionist paintings stolen from a French museum in 1984 and has given police a break in solving the largest cash robbery in Japan's history.
Last week, Japan's national police agency launched an international manhunt for two Frenchmen who police said stole $2.4 million from an armored car last Nov. 25 in a daring daytime heist that startled this relatively crime-free capital. The two boarded a plane for Singapore that afternoon and their current whereabouts are unknown, police said.
Tokyo metropolitan police meanwhile have recovered three of five paintings by Camille Corot, a leading French landscape painter of the mid-19th century, that were stolen from a museum outside Paris three years ago. Police believe that the two Frenchmen, the Japanese dealer in fur coats and several other people may have been involved in the theft and disposition of the paintings, which had been on loan from the Louvre Museum.
The chain of clues apparently leading to an intercontinental crime ring has reinforced police fears here that as Japan seeks to become more international in culture and economy, it is becoming more international in crime as well. The national police agency focused on the trend in its annual report released recently, which said that crimes committed by foreigners in Japan have grown six-fold in the past decade.
In this case, several clues pointed to the presence of gaijin, or foreigners, at the scene of the bank robbery, police said: a Michael Jackson mask, a plastic bag from the duty-free shop of the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, and an oversized man's greatcoat with British Royal Navy insignias on the buttons.
But it was the arrest on Sept. 18 of Shinichi Fujikuma, 47, that put police on the trail of two Frenchmen, Emile Jamin, 31, and Youssef Khimoun, 33, and led them to the missing paintings.
Fujikuma, whom police described as an independent broker of paintings and other objects, was charged with the nighttime burglary of 65 minks and other furs from a Tokyo store in October 1985. After he was arrested, Fujikuma told police he had information about the stolen Corot paintings.
Fujikuma had served time in French jails from 1978 to 1983 on drug charges, police here said. Newspapers here have speculated that he made the contacts to fence stolen art in Japan while in prison.
Japanese art lovers have recently been outbidding the rest of the world in the legitimate art market -- an insurance company here set a world record this year by paying $39 million for a Vincent Van Gogh painting of sunflowers -- and police say there is a market for stolen western art as well.
Fujikuma told police that Jamin and Khimoun had sold him the five Corot paintings and that he had then sold them to Japanese businessmen here. Police are holding three paintings recovered from the homes of two Tokyo businessmen who have not been identified.
Newspapers here reported that the businessmen paid about $200,000 apiece for the paintings. A French Embassy spokesman here declined to comment on the case, but one embassy official said the negotiations to recover the paintings from businessmen who can say they bought them in good faith may be legally complicated.
Police have not said whether they have found the other two paintings.
According to Fujikuma and police investigations, Jamin first visited Japan in January 1985. On his second visit in April, he allegedly sold Fujikuma three of the paintings by Corot and on his third trip, according to Fujikuma, he participated in the burglary of the fur store. Two months later, French police told Japanese police that the paintings might be in Japan.
It was during Jamin's fifth visit here, on Nov. 25 last year, that -- according to police -- he, Khimoun and at least one Japanese stole 333 million yen, or $2.4 million, being transferred from an armored car to a branch of the Mitsubishi bank. The robbers brandished toy guns and sprayed bank guards with mace as they made off with two boxes of cash while dozens of pedestrians strolled past, apparently oblivious to the crime.
An editorial in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's most widely read daily newspaper, said that the robbery had "spread uneasiness in our society; the social cost is inestimable."
The police, meanwhile, found the robbers' getaway car in a nearby underground garage and, inside the car, a blanket that had been rented from a home furnishings store catering to foreigners. The blanket was traced to an apartment that the two Frenchmen had rented.