Three guards were on duty the morning of May 20th. An hour after sunrise, at around 7 a.m., as they were preparing to open the museum, they noticed the empty frames and alerted police. They had seen and heard nothing. Members of Paris’s elite armed robbery unit, the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, responded. Visitors to the Musée d’Art Moderne that day found a sign informing them that for “technical reasons” the museum would be closed. The Guardian described
the scene outside: “The world’s media swarmed around the five police officers on guard” and “by early afternoon, the entrance had been cordoned off and security barriers erected.”
At the time, the impact of the theft was a mix of shock, threats, and awe. Alice Farren-Bradley, then of the Art Loss Register in London, called it “one of the biggest art heists ever, considering the estimated value, the prominence of the artists and the high profile of the museum.” The city’s then-deputy for culture Christophe Girard described the psychological impact of the theft. “People at the museum are traumatized,” he said. “These are such important pieces of art. It’s clear that the security system was outfoxed.” Tim Marlow, the art historian and Royal Academy artistic director, was impressed with Tomic’s eye. “These are works by the greatest figures of early 20th-century art,” he said to the the Telegraph. “You’ve got to say that this thief has good taste—he knew what he was taking.”
Indeed, it is clear from planning to theft that the burglar had some idea of what he was doing. It was less clear at the time that he knew what he would do next. “You cannot do anything with these paintings,” said Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, then the director of the Palais de Tokyo. International police would be on alert, keeping an eye out for the works. And the pieces could never be sold on the open market or shown to law-abiding collectors who would likely recognize and report the paintings given their notoriety. In such cases, thieves sometimes try to extract a so-called “finders-fee” for returning the work, but that is also difficult. So Saint-Cry spoke directly to the perpetrators. “These five paintings are un-sellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them.” Alas, it was not to be.
Arrest and Trial
It took police more than a year to arrest all three of the theft’s perpetrators. But now, Tomic and two accomplices—the antiques dealer Corvez and watchmaker Yonathan Birn—are standing trial in a Paris courtroom. Conspicuously absent, however, are the works themselves. If Birn is to believed, the pieces are gone, destroyed by a garbage truck. “I threw them into the trash,” a tearful
Birn told the court three times over the course of the proceedings. “I made the worst mistake of my existence.” The last to be arrested, Birn said he panicked when the other two were picked up by police in May of 2011 and dumped the priceless pieces.
The investigating judge, Peimane Ghaleh-Marzban, is skeptical that Birn threw the pieces away. So are, for that matter, Birn’s co-defendants, who testified that he was “too smart” to simply discard the priceless works of art. Tomic himself wants to know where the objects are, saying that “these are my artworks.” Farren-Bradley, who is now the moderator of the Museum Security Network and has written
about the heist, told Artsy via email, “We can only hope that Mr. Birn’s claims of panic-induced destruction prove to be untrue.” Though, she added, that other cases where artworks became “too hot to handle” resulted in the pieces being badly damaged or even destroyed.