Stolen Paris Art: Where Will It End Up?

Thieves carefully removed the art from the frames before absconding with it. Click the photo to see what was taken. Jacques Brinon / AP

Stealing more than half a billion dollars’ worth of the finest paintings produced in the 20th century is pretty easy, it turns out. But then what do you do with them?

Late Wednesday night, thieves made off with five canvases from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris worth an estimated $613 million. The burglars broke through a window at the back of the museum, cut through the chain that locked a flexible metal grille like the ones on old service elevators, then carried away a Picasso, a Matisse, a Modigliani, a Braque, and a Léger. Video surveillance, watched after the fact, reportedly picked up only one burglar inside the building, although it’s likely he worked with accomplices.

If you grew up watching movies about elaborate heists by the likes of Cary Grant or Pierce Brosnan as they outwit sophisticated motion sensors and laser-alarm systems, well, none of that seems to have been in place or working in Paris on Wednesday night. The French newspaper Le Parisien reports that the museum’s alarms had been down for two months. The thief apparently was in no rush. The Associated Press says that the paintings were not sliced from their frames but carefully removed. Nobody knew the masterpieces were missing until a little before 7 a.m. Thursday, when a guard making his first rounds noticed the broken window and the severed chain.

Yet the very fact that these paintings are so well known and so very valuable on the open market makes them almost impossible to unload on the black market. What fence wants to take on Picasso’s cubist masterpiece Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois when the whole world is looking for it? With a high-profile heist like this, in practical terms, there’s a very fine line between priceless and worthless.

“Thieves are very shortsighted,” says Anthony Amore, head of security for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A Vermeer, a Rembrandt, and 11 other priceless pieces were stolen there 20 years ago this month and have never been found. “History is full of examples of people who have stolen art they can’t sell and it winds up under their mother’s bed or in an attic somewhere,” says Amore.

Whenever there is a theft on the scale of the one in Paris this week, several hypotheses are likely to surface. One of the most common is that the theft was commissioned by an obsessed collector who wants to keep the works all to himself, knowing they can never be shown or shared or sold. While this has a certain romantic drama to it—think of The Thomas Crown Affair—such cases are rare. “I cannot think of a single one,” says Amore.

In other cases, the thieves get starry-eyed looking at the enormous numbers paid for art at auction. (Earlier this month a single Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust sold for a record-breaking $106.5 million; a Matisse went for $28.6 million.) “They think there’s some Hollywood scenario with a Dr. No someplace who’s going to give them 50 cents on the dollar,” says Amore. “But they don’t find him.” Over the last 20 years, the advent of computer databases and enhanced international cooperation has made it difficult for any buyer to claim he didn’t know the provenance of a cut-rate masterpiece.

In one of the most common art-crime scenarios, the aim of the heist is not to sell the art at all, but to ransom it—and some museums are insured for that possibility. In such cases, the details of the exchange very rarely come out in public. There may be multiple levels of intermediaries, and the thieves—sometimes associated with organized-crime syndicates—can be very patient. According to Amore, in North America in recent years there have been cases where “art is stolen as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card.” Criminals figure if they get arrested for other offenses, they can offer to cut a deal for the return of a famous painting. Amore says works of art have also served as collateral in drug deals.

All these overlapping motives and hypotheses make for a very murky underworld, and investigations can take years or, indeed, decades. Despite hundreds of leads, relentless follow-up and close cooperation with the FBI, the Gardner museum has yet to retrieve a single one of the pieces stolen from it by two men posing as policemen in 1990.

Sometimes you get lucky. Thieves stole more than $100 million worth of paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1991, but apparently panicked. They abandoned all their loot in the car they’d driven to the train station.

More often the retrieval of stolen art winds up being almost as mysterious as its theft. When Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream was snatched from Norway’s National Gallery in 1994, multiple ransom demands were made, but police said none could be authenticated. Then, oddly, the painting showed up in a hotel room near the museum three months later. In Paris in 1985, an armed gang took seven famous impressionist paintings, including Monet’s seminal Impression, Sunrise. Not until 1990 were all the canvases recovered, some of them in Japan, and the precise circumstances under which they were returned were never made public.

In Paris on Thursday, all theories about the thieves were nothing more than that. Hours after the crime, two sheets of paper hastily taped to the museum’s doors informed visitors that it was closed for “technical reasons.” Police swarmed over the back of the building taking notes and handing frames back and forth through the same window used by the burglar, trying to judge his technique for exfiltrating a Picasso. The investigation, in other words, has only just begun.