Picasso, Matisse Paintings Swiped From Museum

A lone masked intruder was caught on a video surveillance camera stealing five paintings worth tens of millions of dollars in a brazen overnight heist from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Experts say the works could be held for ransom, but it's unlikely the thief would be able to sell them. The museum's security system had been disabled and the thief managed to evade three night guards.

Five paintings stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art could be held for ransom, experts say, but it's unlikely that the thief or thieves would be able to sell them.

Masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse were among the paintings that disappeared overnight from the museum on the Seine River. The works are valued at more than $100 million; earlier estimates put their worth at more than a half-billion dollars.

French officials said Thursday that the museum's security system was disabled. The burglar evidently cut a padlock and broke a window to gain access to the building, then somehow managed to evade three night guards. Video from a surveillance camera reportedly shows a single masked intruder inside the museum.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe told a news conference Thursday afternoon that the museum had reported problems with its alarm system two months ago.

"It's puzzling, to say the least," said Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, "that based on what is publicly known -- three guards were on duty and the thief was captured on camera, yet he was able to smash a window, take five paintings, have time to remove them from their frames, escape, and that the theft was not discovered until the following morning."

Chris Marinello, general counsel for the Art Loss Register, said a sophisticated criminal gang probably carried out the heist. But, he added, they also must be sophisticated enough to know that their options for moving the stolen works are limited.

That means the perpetrators probably know they can't sell the stolen paintings, Marinello said. "The problem is that art of this magnitude can't just be placed on the market," he said. "No matter where these go, they'll be recognized."

The paintings include Pigeon with Peas from Pablo Picasso's cubist period, and Pastoral by Henri Matisse. The other paintings were by Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Leger.

Because it would be very difficult to sell these works, Marinello said, the thief or thieves may make a ransom demand. "Works of art like this are either returned very quickly, or you could be looking at more than a decade," he said. In that case, "they go deep underground, and they get traded among thieves who may be looking to make a deal with law enforcement."

Marinello cited a massive heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The 13 works of art stolen, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts, have never been recovered. They were valued at around $500 million.

There have been other big thefts in recent years. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris that thieves got away with about 30 works of art, including a Picasso, from a villa in southern France in January. The previous summer, a sketchbook of Picasso drawings worth $11 million was stolen from another Paris art museum.

The Art Loss Register maintains a database of around 300,000 stolen artworks, Marinello said. Its staff monitors art auctions and sales looking for stolen works, and provides its information free to law enforcement. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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