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Co-Defendant in €100 Million Art Heist Claims He Threw Five Masterpieces in the Trash

But investigators are skeptical

The front of the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. ( Creative Commons Flickr/Maciej Zgadzaj)
smithsonian.com

In the early hours of a May morning almost seven years ago, Vjeran Tomic meticulously cut a glass panel out of a window at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville in Paris. He then made it through a padlocked grate, slipped inside the storied museum located in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and proceeded to steal five paintings by modern masters worth more than €100 million. The police have since apprehended Tomic, but the paintings he took— a Picasso, a Matisse, a Modigliani, a Braque and a Léger—have yet to be recovered.

Now, new testimony suggests that these artworks may be lost forever. On Monday, as Philippe Sotto reports for the Associated Press, one of Tomic’s alleged accomplices said in a Paris court that in a panic, he disposed of the paintings.

“I threw them into the trash,” Yonathan Birn repeated three times. “I made the worst mistake of my existence.”

Birn and a second co-defendant, antiques dealer Jean-Michel Corvez, are charged with receiving the stolen goods from Tomic. 

Henry Samuel at The Independent reports that Corvez told investigators that he ordered Tomic to steal the Léger. But Tomic lifted all five pieces after no alarm sounded when he broke into the museum.

Corvez claims he initially stored the paintings in his shop, but fearing he'd get caught, he eventually passed the works off to his friend, Birn. Birn, too, claims he worried about being apprehended by the police, and so in May 2011, he testified that he broke the stretcher bars on all five canvases and tossed the art into a trash bin.

"I'm crying because it's monstrous what I've done,” Birn told the judge on Monday. "I was overcome with panic."

But investigators are skeptical of Birn’s claims. They believe that the works were sold to a collector, perhaps during a trip that Birn took to Israel.

The heist, deemed “one of the world’s biggest” by the AP, has raised questions about perplexingly lax security measures at the museum. Though Tomic possessed rather extraordinary thieving skills—the French media nicknamed him “Spider-Man” after he was caught scaling up a Parisian apartment building—he was able to steal the artworks with relative ease.

According to the BBC, the museum’s alarms never sounded because they had been turned off for repairs on the night of the heist. Samuel reports that security guards were on the premises, but failed to notice Tomic as he wandered around the museum, selecting pieces to steal.

On Monday, Tomic did not seem particularly contrite about his role in the disappearance of five artistic masterpieces. Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Samuel reports that Tomic referred to himself as Arsène Lupin—the charming “gentleman thief” from the short stories of Maurice Leblanc.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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