Five paintings stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris feared destroyed

Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

The Associated Press reported this week that five important works stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 may have been destroyed. This work by Léger was apparently stolen to order, and in his zeal to capitalize on his time in the museum, the thief managed to make life considerably more difficult for his alleged co-conspirators because he stole some more very notorious works which only served to attract more attention from the authorities.

At a trial in Paris, one of the defendants, Yonathan Birn, claimed to have destroyed the works after fears that the investigation into their disappearance would lead to him.

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A Hollow Victory for Mexico in the Barbier-Mueller Sale

Lot 137, which did sell,
for 2,001,500 Euro

On Friday and Saturday in Paris Sotheby’s auctioned a number of allegedly Pre-Columbian objects from the Barbier-Mueller collection.

Nord Wennerstrom reports that many of the lots sold for less than the low estimate, and 79 of 151 lots failed to sell. His take: the auction ended as “inauspiciously as it began”. Sotheby’s lists its sale results here.

The auction generated considerable interest last week. In anticipation of the sale Mexican officials protested and noted: “Of the 130 objects advertised as being from Mexico, 51 are archaeological artifacts that are (Mexican) national property, and the rest are handicrafts”. In this case “handicrafts” is a very polite way of pointing out that some of the objects are fakes or forgeries. In this case the sale continued, but the considerable notoriety surrounding the sale certainly diminished the market value of these objects, and in many cases made these objects too toxic perhaps for some buyers.

French diplomats last week did not intervene in the sale noting that none of the objects had appeared on the Interpol database, or the “red list” published by the International Council of Museums.

Sotheby’s Paris on its website stated the collect was started in 1920 by Jose Mueller. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller broadened the collection. Sotheby’s described Barbier-Mueller as “a great aesthete and man of culture”.

Here’s an extended quote from the overview given by Sotheby’s:

In 1908 and 1909 Josef Mueller acquired major works by Hodler and Cézanne in Paris. While initially focusing on Western masterpieces of universal appeal, he soon became attracted by important works of Pre-Columbian art, his first purchase being an Aztec ‘water goddess’ in Paris in 1920. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, a great aesthete and man of culture, brought this high standard of collecting to other fields, such as African Art, Oceanic Art and Cycladic Art. His dedicated focus has resulted in the well-deserved reputation for excellence that the collections have today. Mr. Barbier-Mueller and his wife Monique Barbier-Mueller (Josef Mueller’s daughter), who has pursued modern and contemporary art, have achieved one of the foremost collections of art in private hands, one defined by their sophisticated knowledge and refined eye.

Some of this collection had been in existence since the early part of the 20th century. But not all of it. In a case like this, Mexico and other nations of origin have a limited range of options here. Their best way to attack the sale of these objects is exactly what it did. Make a public protest over the sale, and enlist the power of the press to reduce the market value of these under-provenanced objects. We are unsure now what will happen to the objects which did not sell. Contrast this situation with what might have happened had this auction occurred in the United States.

Increasingly unprovenanced objects are being regulated by Federal prosecutors, at least in New York and St. Louis. We certainly don’t know if a forfeiture would have happened in this case, or indeed if that was even a consideration in the decision to sell these objects in Paris rather than New York. But it is yet another example of the complex web of legal rules and norms which apply to the antiquities trade.

  1. Mark Stevenson, Mexico demands Sotheby’s halt auction of artifacts, The Washington Post, March 23, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/mexico-demands-sothebys-halt-auction-of-artifacts/2013/03/21/e5d18316-9274-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
  2. Mike Boehm, Mexico trying to stop antiquities sale at Sotheby’s in Paris, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-mexico-wants-to-stop-sothebys-precolumbian-art-auction-20130321,0,5085665.story?track=rss (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

$150 Million worth of art in the trash?

Stolen to order?
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

Last week it was reported that three individuals were arrested in connection with the theft of five works from the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris. The thefts took place in 2010 and there were reports that the museums alarms had been malfunctioning for months. Well the thieves may have had a very easy time stealing the art. There are reports that the five stolen works were destroyed, and that one of the works was stolen to order:

Detectives said that while they remained sceptical about his account, they could not “totally rule out” this catastrophic scenario. The destruction of such landmark masterpieces would be a major blow to international art heritage. The first to be arrested was a Serb known only as Vrejan T, 43, nicknamed “Spiderman” and who was detained days after last year’s heist over a separate art theft from a chic Paris apartment. Under questioning, the suspect reportedly recounted how he loosened screws in a window at the Art Deco Palais de Tokyo housing the museum, returned a few nights later to remove the frame and sliced through a padlock on an iron grille. He had initially gone there only to steal a Léger work to order, he said, but once inside, was “surprised” when the burglary alarm failed to sound. Being a “veritable art lover,” the Serb told police he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras to cherry pick four other masterpieces. “He found the Modigliani the most beautiful of all,” a judicial source told the JDD. Vrejan T reportedly told investigators he had stolen the Léger for Jean-Michel C, 56, an antiques dealer with a shop called Antiquités Bastille. He was arrested in May for selling other stolen art works.

As a wise Museum Security Director once said: ‘shit happens’. Lets hope this is the statement of a desperate defendant, and the paintings are still safe. This underscores the point that tracking down art thieves is a delicate proposition. They have a very big piece of collateral, in this case five important works of art. If you prosecute the thief too harshly, you run the risk of destroying what you were after. Of course the best way to prevent this destruction would have been better basic attention to security.

  1. Henry Samuel, £100m masterpieces stolen from French museum “crushed by rubbish truck,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8816634/100m-masterpieces-stolen-from-French-museum-crushed-by-rubbish-truck.html (last visited Oct 10, 2011). 
The other stolen works:
La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani

   

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Three arrested in connection with thefts from Musee d’Art Moderne

In May 2010 five works were stolen from the Musee d’Art Moderne near the Eiffel tower. Now three individuals are being detained in connection with the thefts, though the works are still missing. From AFP:

The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12

The three, a woman suspected of taking part in the theft and two people suspected of handling stolen goods, were arrested and charged over the robbery of the five paintings, by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Ferdinand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani, and placed in custody on September 16, the official said. A lone burglar sheared off a gate padlock and broke a window to get into the city-run Musee d’Art Moderne in the brazen operation during the night of May 19 last year. The paintings were found to be missing just as the museum, a major tourist attraction near the Eiffel Tower, was about to open. Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe later said one of the museum’s alarms had been “partly malfunctioning” since the end of March, and that it was still awaiting repair when the thieves struck.

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Reactions to the Paris Theft

A lot of reactions to the theft of five modern works in Paris yesterday.

Dick Ellis:

The operation was “very carefully planned”.

Noah Charney interviewed in TIME:

The theft has all the markings of organized crime which, since the 1960s, has been responsible for most art crime worldwide . . .  There is no market for such works, and they are most likely to either be ransomed, or to be used for trade or collateral on a closed black market, traded for other illicit goods such as drugs or arms between criminal groups. . . .  Because of the involvement of organized crime groups, art theft fuels other crime types, from the drug and arms trades to terrorism.

Tom Flynn:

The media’s blithe dismissal of art theft as a trifling peccadillo might be seen as another version of the museum world’s careless attitude to the cultural objects in its care. The Paris theft has all the marks of an inside job (anyone who keeps a weather eye on international art crime will testify to how frequently this is the case in major art thefts). Meanwhile, closed circuit television cameras may have recorded an action-packed video of the heist, but what good it will do beyond make for some Thomas Crown-like entertainment is a moot point. CCTV is as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Ton Cremers on the Museum Security Network:

In the abundance of information and non-information after the Paris theft of 5 important 20th century paintings the revelation that the electronic intruder alarm system was out of order since two months is shocking. If this really is true – it seems almost impossible – one may wonder if any museum director would accept that the climate system would be out of order. No need to answer this question. This makes me think of the poor security in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna where the Benvenuto Cellini saliera was stolen within 56 seconds. My conviction in those days: fire that director immediately. If it appears true that the security system in this Paris museum was out of order since two months – or two days for that matter – my advise is exactly the same: fire the complete responsible management.

Catherine Sezgin summarizes what we know now at the ARCA blog:

For six weeks, the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris has waited for parts to fix their security system. Last night, five paintings valued at 100 million euros were stolen between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning from the building in one of the most fashionable districts in Paris, just blocks from the Pont de l’Alma where Princess Diana died in 1997 and north of the Eiffel Tour.

The thief accessed the collection though a rear window of the east wing of the Palais de Tokyo. It is possible that the thief drove his scooter along the Avenue du New York that runs parallel to the Seine. He likely rode a scooter because the street has signs posted for no parking and heavy black gates divide the road from the wide sidewalk as is common in central Paris.

  1. Hunt for Paris art theft clues, BBC, May 20, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8695453.stm (last visited May 21, 2010).
  2. Jeffrey T. Iverson, The French Art Heist: Who Would Steal Unsaleable Picassos?, Time, 2010, http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1990921,00.html (last visited May 21, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Five Important Works Stolen from Paris Musee d’Art Moderne

L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906

 Very early this morning in Paris a thief stole these five works from the Musee d’Art Moderne near the Eiffel Tower.  CCTV cameras have reportedly caught one person breaking through a window.  Lots of figures will be thrown around about the value of these paintings, as for the reasons for the theft.  The value estimates are very rough, ranging already from 100-500 million Euro.  Yet these works can never be sold in a legitimate market, so in one sense their market value means little.  They have a kind of value in that they are so precious, museum and the authorities may be willing to take—or at least the thief thinks they will take—the unwise step of paying a ransom.  Or other criminals may try to launder some or all of the works through different individuals, in much the same way the Leonardo Yarnwinder was transferred. 

Why were the works stolen?  There are many reasons, but the simplest one may be the the most likely.  It is really not that hard, despite the loss we all suffer when works are damaged or lost forever. 

La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani
  1. The Paris art theft has robbed us of some truly great paintings | Jonathan Jones | Art and design | guardian.co.uk, (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/may/20/paris-art-theft-picasso-matisse (last visited May 20, 2010).
  2. Catherine Hickley & Craig A. Copetas, Picasso, Matisse Paintings Stolen From Paris Museum – Bloomberg, http://preview.bloomberg.com/news/2010-05-20/picasso-matisse-modigliani-paintings-worth-123-million-stolen-in-paris.html (last visited May 20, 2010).
  3. AFP: Thief lifts 500 mln euros of art from Paris museum, , http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5irIRZ91WXBYeoJF1elwGm7XVV4Eg (last visited May 20, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com