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Prosecution seeks jail time and heavy fines for Paris museum thieves

The three men involved in the heist face seven to ten years for the disappearance of five masterpieces

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Heavy sentences were sought at the trial of three men involved in the 2010 burglary of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, when five masterpieces by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani and Léger, valued at a combine €108m, were taken and subsequently vanished. Calling the heist “one of the worst in a museum in modern history”, the prosecutor asked the court to “repair an attack against humanity’s heritage”.

The professional burglar Vjeran Tomic, nicknamed the Spider, faces ten years in jail, while the antique dealer Jean-Michel Corvez, who served as the go-between with a mysterious buyer, faces eight and the clock expert Jonathan Birn, who hid the paintings, faces seven. The prosecutor also asked that the men receive the maximum fines, €150,000 to €300,000. Judgement is expected on 20 February.

The three men admitted the basic facts in court. But the museum’s director, the city council and the prosecutor questioned the claim that the paintings had been destroyed by Birn, when he understood that a police investigator suspected his involvement in the theft. During testimony, it was established that Birn and Corvez had contacts with anonymous Arab businessmen and Israeli lawyers, but the investigations into their identities led nowhere. Nevertheless, the prosecutor argued that the paintings had been sold or hidden in the hope of recovering some money later. As the defence pointed out, this scenario has the advantage of minimising the responsibility of the police and the museum.

William Bourdon, the lawyer representing the city of Paris, insisted that the “faulty security” should not mean the museum bears “a shared responsibility in the theft”. Vjeran Tomic, who at the age of 49 has spent 16 years in jail, told the court that “apartments are usually better protected than this museum”.

Stressing the historical value of the works, dating from the very first years of Fauvism and Cubism, the museum director, Fabrice Hergott, claimed “it was too hard to believe they have disappeared forever”. But the defence lawyers attributed this “denial to a curator trying to save his career”, wondering how anyone could hope to sell any of the paintings today. They also tried to convince the court not to set the museum theft apart from an ordinary burglary and argued that the missing works—“which are not sacred”—were not valued enough by the museum to repair its own security system.