French police hunt thief of five art masterpieces

Police investigators with the frames outside the Museum of Modern Art in Paris on 20/5/2010 Police are hunting for clues as to who carried out the brazen theft

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French police are hunting the burglar or burglars who made off with paintings by Picasso, Matisse and other great artists from a Paris museum.

Officials have admitted the Museum of Modern Art's alarm system had not been fully functioning for several weeks.

One masked intruder was spotted by security cameras, climbing into the museum through a broken side window, having cut through a gate padlock.

The paintings are estimated to be worth just under 100m euros (£86m; $123m).

But experts say the thieves would struggle to sell the paintings on the open market because they are so well known.

The five missing paintings are Dove with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso (painted in 1911), Pastoral by Henri Matisse (1906), Olive Tree near l'Estaque by Georges Braque (1906), Woman with Fan by Amedeo Modigliani (1919) and Still Life with Candlestick by Fernand Leger (1922).

'Quite impressive'

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe admitted one of the museum's alarms had been "partly malfunctioning" since the end of March, and had been awaiting repair when the theft happened.

He called the incident "an intolerable attack on the universal cultural heritage in Paris".

GREAT ART HEISTS

  • February 2008: Four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh and Monet are stolen from the EG Buehrle Collection, a private museum in Zurich. The Van Gogh and Monet paintings were recovered
  • August 2004: Two paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, are stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Recovered two years later
  • April 1991: Twenty paintings are stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Found shortly afterwards in abandoned car nearby
  • March 1990: Works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet are stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Still lost

Officials said that the burglar entered the museum at just before 0400 local time (0200 GMT) on Thursday, and took just 15 minutes to remove the canvases from their frames and slip out of the building again undetected.

Three security guards were on duty during the night, but the theft was only discovered at around 0700 local time (0500 GMT), Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris City Hall said.

Mr Girard added that investigators were trying to determine whether the theft was carried out by one burglar or a gang.

"This looks like an operation by a professional gang, by organised criminals," he said. "We are dealing with an extremely high level of sophistication.

"To get into the museum by disassembling a window, choose five specific works and then slip out unnoticed by the guards. That is quite impressive."

The museum, across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower, has been cordoned off by investigators.

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