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Image: Museum theft in Paris
Bertrand Guay  /  AFP - Getty Images
Policemen stand by painting frames outside the Paris' Musee d'Art Moderne where five works including paintings by modern masters Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were stolen.
updated 6/13/2010 5:16:06 PM ET 2010-06-13T21:16:06

A broken alarm system made it as easy as 1-2-3: A masked intruder clipped a padlock, smashed a window and stole a Picasso, a Matisse and three other masterpieces from a Paris museum Thursday — a haul worth perhaps $123 million in one of the world's biggest art heists.

Offloading the artwork may prove a tougher task, however, with Interpol and collectors worldwide now on high alert.

In what seemed like an art thief's fantasy, the alarm system had been broken since March in parts of the Paris Museum of Modern Art, according to the city's mayor, Bertrand Delanoe.

The museum, in a tony neighborhood across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower, reopened in 2006 after spending $18 million and two years upgrading its security system. Spare parts had been ordered to fix the alarm but had not yet arrived, the mayor said in a statement.

So with no alarm to worry about, a lone masked intruder entered the museum about 3:50 a.m., said Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris City Hall. The thief cut a padlock on a gate, then broke a side window and climbed inside — his movements caught on one of the museum's functioning cameras, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.

The intruder later slipped back out, carrying the canvases and leaving behind empty frames. The whole thing took 15 minutes, a police official said.

Three security guards were on duty overnight, but "they saw nothing," Girard said. A night watchman discovered the theft around 7 a.m.

The stolen works included Pablo Picasso's "Le pigeon aux petits-pois" (The Pigeon with the Peas), an ochre-toned Cubist oil painting worth an estimated $28 million, and "La Pastorale" (Pastoral), a pastel-hued oil painting of nudes on a hillside by Henri Matisse worth about $17.5 million, Girard said.

Also seized were "La femme a l'eventail" (Woman with a Fan) by Amedeo Modigliani, "L'olivier pres de l'Estaque" (Olive Tree near Estaque) by Georges Braque and "Nature morte aux chandeliers" (Still Life with Chandeliers) by Fernand Leger.

Estimates of the total value of the paintings varied: The prosecutor's office initially put their worth as high as $613 million but later downgraded the figure to about $111 million. Girard said the total value was about $123 million.

More than one suspect?
The broken alarm system also renewed concerns about museum security in the French capital. There was no operating surveillance system when a thief made off with a red sketchbook of 33 Picasso drawings from the nearby Picasso Museum while it was undergoing renovations last summer.

Image: A reproduction shows the painting "Pastorale, Nympe et Faune" painted in 1906 by Henri Matisse
Ho  /  Reuters
"Pastorale, Nympe et Faune" painted in 1906 by Henri Matisse.

Within hours of Thursday's heist, red-and-white tape surrounded the Museum of Modern Art and signs on the Art Deco building's ornate bronze doors said it was closed for "technical reasons."

On a cordoned-off balcony, police wearing blue gloves and face masks examined the museum's broken window and the discarded frames. The paintings appeared to have been carefully removed from the disassembled frames, not sliced out.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the intruder was operating alone, Girard told reporters. Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigations, expressed doubt that one person could have pulled it off the heist, even if only one person was caught on camera.

Many high-profile art thefts have ended in failure, with the artworks recovered as thieves struggle to trade their illegal bounty for cash. But some famous stolen works remain at large — such as those seized more than two decades ago from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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Alice Farren-Bradley of the Art Loss Registry in London said the Paris theft appeared to be one of the biggest art heists ever, considering the prominence of the artists, the value of the paintings and the high profile of the museum.

However, she said it will be "virtually impossible" to sell such prominent paintings on the open market and typically stolen art fetches lower prices on the black market.

"Very often they can be used as collateral to broker other deals" involving drugs or weapons, she said. "They are not necessarily going to be bought by some great lover of the arts."

Art expert Jean-Marie Baron said the heist could have been organized by thieves who plan to sell the paintings to wealthy individuals in Russia, China or elsewhere, and "who won't verify the origins of the paintings." Another possibility was that the thieves planned to "ransom" the paintings in exchange for a big insurance payout, he said.

Image: A reproduction shows the painting "Le Pigeon aux petit pois" painted in 1911 by Pablo Picasso
Ho  /  Reuters
A reproduction shows "Le Pigeon aux petit pois" painted in 1911 by Pablo Picasso.

The FBI estimates the market for stolen art at $6 billion. The Art Loss Register has tallied up to 170,000 pieces of stolen, missing and looted art and valuables.

Picasso is the world's most stolen artist due to his prolific output and the value of his works. The Art Loss Register lists some 550 missing Picasso pieces, including paintings, lithographs, drawings and ceramics, as of 2007.

Hours after Thursday's heist, the director of the neighboring Palais de Tokyo modern art museum called the thieves "imbeciles."

"Those paintings are absolutely unsellable. First off because these are very well known paintings. And also because we are in a new civilization ... of instant global communication," Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr told AP Television News. "The entire planet has pictures of these paintings."

The loss is "like the death of a family member," lamented Flemming Friborg, manager of Copenhagen's Glyptotek museum, known for its Impressionist collection. 

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Paris museum robbed of famed artworks

  1. Closed captioning of: Paris museum robbed of famed artworks

    >>> the search is on for missing masterpieces in the bandits who pulled off a daring heist at a paris modern art museum . five paintings valued at more than $100 million were stolen, including major works by picasso and matisse. nbc's stephanie gosk is in paris this morning. hi, stephanie , good morning to you.

    >> reporter: hi, matt, good morning. a special police brigade here in paris dedicated to art is poring over the five frames that the thieves left behind looking for forensic evidence, while interpol is contacting law enforcement around the world. the hunt for these paintings is on. five modern art masterpieces, estimated to be worth more than $100 million, stolen in the dead of night from one of the world's most prestigious museums, including pablo picasso 's "do have with green peas " honoring matisse's "pastoral." the three overnight guards at the museum of art in paris say they didn't see or hear a thing. security cameras showed a lone masked intruder, breaking through a window, smashing a padlock and stealing paintings without ever tripping any alarms. motion activity sensors had been broken since march, something the thief probably knew.

    >> we always say it was 88% to 89% of museum thefts usually have some type of insider situation going on. it's not always a curator or maybe even an employee. sometimes it is just the experts who go in and do studies in the museum.

    >> reporter: an ingenious plan, perhaps a dapper thief, perhaps a hollywood movie in the making. in the thomas crown affair , pierce brosnan plays a millionaire who steals just for the thrill and gets away with it. in reality, experts suspect a crime ring may be behind this heist.

    >> the people who undertake this work are professional thieves. they're like businessmen.

    >> reporter: but unloading the paintings will be difficult. reputable dealers will quickly realize the artwork is stolen.

    >> you can't sell these paintings. it is funny thing, people say these paintings are worth $15 million. the truth is they're worth nothing. they're worth zero because there is no history, they don't have good title. on the open art market they're worth nothing.

    >> reporter: but expensive artwork has always tempted the clever criminal. the more famous the painting, the more the prestige. "the scream" was pinched from the national gallery in oslo in 2004 in broad daylight but gun wielding thieves. the painting was later recovered. more than 600 of picasso's paintings are currently missing including three taken from his granddaughter's apartment. the artwork only has a 25% of being recovered in 30 years. the chances get better the more well known the paintings. but right now the biggest fear is these thieves won't be able to sell the paintings and they might destroy them instead. matt?

    >> stephanie gosk for us in paris this morning, thank you very much.


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