Art Market

“Spider-Man” Thief Sentenced in Paris Court over $100 Million in Missing Art

Isaac Kaplan
Feb 21, 2017 11:50PM

Musée d’Art Moderne at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo by jameswberk, via Flickr.

Three men charged in relation to a 2010 theft of five artworks, together worth roughly $100 million, from Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne were handed stiff sentences by a court on Monday.  

Vjeran Tomic, the ringleader who snuck into the museum, was hit with an eight-year sentence and €200,000 fine for the crime. According to Le Monde, Tomic exhibited little emotion as Judge Peimane Ghaleh-Marzban read out his history of burglary—some 14 convictions and 15 years already served—and described his delinquency as “a way of life.” Tomic’s penchant for acrobatically intensive heists that included scaling walls and cutting through windows earned him the nickname the “Spider-Man.”

The judge chastised Tomic for referring to the five stolen works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger as “his” during the course of the trial, and said he and his accomplices displayed a “total lack of consideration for the respect of the common good.”

The judge also doled out harsh sentences to the other two defendants. Jean-Michel Corvez, a 61-year-old art dealer who originally commissioned the theft, was hit with a seven-year sentence. Corvez originally planned to pay €40,000 for one work by Leger, but Tomic—surprised by the lack of an alarm in the Paris museum—grabbed four additional paintings of his own accord. Since the theft, the 14 museums the city manages have taken steps to increase their security, according to the New York Times. The judge also handed Corvez a €150,000 fine and confiscated his house.

The most powerful scene came during the sentencing of Yonathan Birn, the 40-year-old watchmaker who stored the stolen paintings for Corvez. Throughout the proceeding Birn was reportedly “wringing his hands” while growing increasingly angry and muttering: “It’s madness.” Birn had claimed during court proceedings that after holding on to the works, he was driven by a fit of panic to toss the five paintings in the garbage after police drew close to catching him in May. He called it the “the worst mistake of my existence.” But neither the presiding judge, nor his co-defendants, seemed to believe his explanation. Instead, the judge accused him of having “no repentance, no will to restitution,” and sentenced him to six years in jail and a €150,000 fine.

Birn’s lawyer, Caroline Toby, called her client’s sentence “particularly severe,” according to the Associated Press. Still, Birn’s sentence was slightly less than the seven to 10 years sought by prosecutors.

While Judge Ghaleh-Marzban chastised the museum for its lax security, he ultimately found that the burglars bore full responsibility for the crime. As such, the three defendants were held responsible for collectively paying roughly $110 million to cover insurance payouts made after the works were stolen. It is unlikely the trio will ever be able to cover the bill, and it is unclear if they plan to appeal.

Isaac Kaplan