Extraordinary testimony, heard by a packed court in a trial that started in the French capital on Monday, highlighted the lack of security at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010, when five masterpieces were stolen and probably destroyed. Three men have been charged in the case: the professional burglar, Véran Tjomic, nicknamed the Spider, the antiques dealer Jean-Michel Corvez and the watchmaking expert Yonathan Birn.
The court was told that Corvez had a Saudi buyer that was keen to acquire a painting by Léger and possibly a work by Modigliani. Tjomic said he had chosen the museum by chance after seeing some Cubist paintings through a window. He then surveyed the museum before breaking in to find the Léger, and prepared his future entry by unscrewing a window frame. He completed the job at about 3:30am on 20 May by simply climbing in. He grabbed Léger’s Nature morte au chandelier and was ready to flee, but since he heard no alarm or any other security, he took the time to explore the museum’s other rooms, easily removing Modigliani’s Femme à l’éventail and three smaller works—Picasso’s Pigeon au petit pois, a view of l’Estaque by Braque and a Fauvist Pastorale by Matisse. Tjomic said he made several trips back and forth to carry the paintings to his car and handed them over to Corvez a few hours later. The five paintings were worth an estimated €108m.
However, the accused men had not anticipated the media storm the theft would spark and found themselves burdened with five paintings they could not dispose of, since the supposed Saudi client had vanished. Corvez, who declined to give the prospective buyer’s name for fear, he said, of reprisals, also mentioned talks with mysterious Israeli lawyers.
Finally, Yonathan Birn, a small, unobtrusive man visibly distressed by the court proceedings, took charge of the paintings. He placed the Modigliani in a bank deposit box, he said, and wrapped the other four works in sheets that he taped up and hid behind a metal closet in his two-room apartment. “I committed the worst error of my life,” Birn told the court.
In May 2011, French police searched Birn's home in connection with another theft—but they didn’t look behind the closet, he said. One of the officers told his wife that Birn was also suspected in the museum theft, he added, and in a state of panic, he broke the frames of the paintings with his feet and threw the canvases into a rubbish bin.
As he left the court after the seven-hour hearing, Véran Tjomic casually advised anyone interested in stealing art to make sure “they had the resources” to deal with it afterwards, “or drop the idea because it’s just too much of a headache”.
The hearing resumes on Friday. But the counsel for the defence has already indicated it will be focusing on a “damning report” about the museum’s security system. The windows had not been touched since the building’s construction in 1937, the alarm system wasn’t working, doors between exhibition rooms were not closed, the paintings were not firmly fixed on the wall and the surveillance screens in the security office were turned off. In the wake of the theft, the city of Paris spent €3m upgrading the system. No one at the museum has been sanctioned.
Correction: The value of the paintings was wrongly given as €180m in the first hearing.